BMCR 2005.05.31

What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. Second Edition

, What are the Gospels? : a comparison with Graeco-Roman biography. The biblical resource series. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2004. xiv, 366 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0802809715. $34.00 (pb).

It is possible to receive a Ph.D. in Classics today without ever having read the New Testament in Greek. And yet Christianity — and the writing of the gospels — arose during Roman imperial times in the Hellenized Eastern Mediterranean. So we may reasonably ask to what extent should the gospels be studied with regard to the context of the Graeco-Roman world? It is this question that Burridge (hereafter “B.”) addresses in the second edition of his work, What are the Gospels? The first part of this volume surveys the scholarship over the past 125 years regarding the status of the gospels. In the second part, B. proposes a solution, namely, that the gospels are not sui generis, but rather should be seen as belonging to the genre of Graeco-Roman biography (B. prefers “lives,” or βίοι).

This argument — that the gospels are a form of ancient biography — leads to significant conclusions about the production and reception of these New Testament writings. B.’s clear exploration is also important for demonstrating how it is possible to pursue a rigorous argument about literary genre in order to determine which works belong in which genre. This revised edition, which is reasonably priced and contains virtually no typographical errors, includes a forward by Graham Stanton, some revisions, a new preface, an additional chapter 11 which discusses reactions and developments since the first edition appeared (1992), and a previously published article on the absence of Rabbinic Biography as a second appendix.

“Part One: The Problem” consists of four chapters surveying scholarship not only on the gospels themselves over the past 125 years, but also on genre criticism and literary theory in order to ground an examination of the gospels’ status. Chapter 1, “Historical Survey,” distinguishes between two major periods of interpretation. For fifty years (until the mid-1960’s) the consensus was that the gospels were a unique form of literature and that the gospel writers revealed little individuality but should be viewed as collectors of “units” of oral traditions. This led to various implications about interpretation (e.g., approaching the gospels from a literary point of view or discussing authorial intention made little sense). A more recent view, developed since the 1960’s, consisted of redaction criticism (exploring, e.g., how Matthew and Luke selected, edited, and expanded on their sources — including Mark) and reception studies (regarding possible gospel audiences in terms of background, education, and literary knowledge). These later approaches rejected the idea that only canonical classical (that is, non-biblical) literature could be considered high literature with deliberate, literary intentions. B. concludes this chapter with a recognition that he must confront three enormous fields: gospel studies, literary theory, and the literary context of the Jewish and Graeco-Roman world.

Chapter 2, “Genre Criticism and Literary Theory,” seeks to “lay a secure methodological foundation for the exploration of gospel genre” (25). B. explores ideas about genre from Plato and Aristotle to Northrup Frye (both prescriptive and descriptive theories; some have viewed genre as fixed, some as evolving) and with the help of Saussure concludes that the reader must be able to master the conventions of the works he is reading. He usefully employs the idea of a “contract” between author and reader, for each particular genre will influence the author in his writing and the reader’s expectations in his reception. B. also adopts Wittgenstein’s idea of a “family resemblance,” originally applied to language, but now employed as “a useful analogue” for works within a particular genre (38). By examining actual texts, we may determine the common elements of form and content within each genre. If a particular work has ” sufficient features for a family resemblance” in common with other works in a particular genre (42), then that work may reasonably be said to belong to that genre. Genre is of the utmost importance, for it “will be our guide to help us re-construct the original meaning [and] to check our interpretation to see if it is valid” (51).

This is the framework with which B will approach the gospels, for he argues that it is especially important to compare the gospels with the literature of their own day. The most likely candidate for comparison is explored in Chapter 3, “Genre Criticism and Graeco-Roman Biography”: Graeco-Roman “lives,” “ancient biography,” vitae, or βίοι rather than simply “biography”, which B. rejects due to its many modern associations (it is particularly important not to judge gospels by the criteria of modern biography, for biography has evolved over time). He finds ancient biography to be a flexible genre, related to history, encomium, rhetoric, and moral philosophy. Rather than prescribe what ancient biography is — and rather than rely too much on authors’ programmatic statements — B. explores actual works of ancient biography from the fifth century B.C.E. to the late Roman empire. The most frequent subjects of ancient biography are politicians, statesmen, philosophers, and saints; the major purpose is didactic or polemical; and frequent τόποι are parents, education, deeds, character, virtues, and death and burial.

Chapter 4, “Evaluation of Recent Debate,” examines ideas from 1970 to 1990. As attempts were made “to relate the gospels to the world of classical literature” (82), many scholars came to accept the idea of gospels as βίοι. B. makes clear his debt to scholars from this period in helping him identity problems, pursue the right questions, and develop the effective methodology that we encounter in Part Two.

“Part Two: The Proposed Solution,” consisting of seven chapters, lays out B.’s argument that the gospels are a type of ancient biography ( βίοι). Chapter 5, “Generic Features,” presents B.’s method of genre-analysis. If the genre — a kind of contract between author and reader — provides expectations, what do we encounter in ancient biography? B. comes up with four broad categories to guide his analysis: opening features, subject, external features, and internal features. These establish the criteria against which we may judge whether any work — including the gospels — belongs to the genre of ancient biography. “Opening features” include the title and the opening words or preface. The “subject” is analyzed by means of computer analysis: all the verbs in a given work have been examined in order to determine how much of the work is focused on a particular person. The frequencies of the name’s occurrence both in the nominative case and in all cases for the entire text are examined (these percentages are derived from searching the TLG texts; the results are found in B.’s first appendix). B. admits that the result of the computer analysis is a “very blunt instrument,” yet his discussion of it — in combination with other factors — is judicious.

The third broad category comprises “external features,” including mode of representation (e.g., was the work designed from oral presentation), length of work, and literary units (speeches, anecdotes, etc.). “Internal features,” by contrast, include topics, but also style, tone, attitude (in this case, analysis may be subjective, but B. provides a sensible discussion). B. is also interested in the occasion of writing, the author’s intention, and ancient methods of characterization that are “revealed by the person’s words and deeds” rather than modern psychological probing (117). The brilliance of this approach is that no single factor dominates; rather what B. seeks to do is to assess the “overall pattern which emerges when a text is analyzed by these features” (122). If similar patterns emerge, “we are justified in claiming that [certain works] belong to the same genre” (118).

Chapter 6, “The Generic Features of Early Graeco-Roman βίοι,” and chapter 7, “The Generic Features of Later Graeco-Roman βίοι,” analyze ten examples across 800 years ranging from Xenophon’s Agesilaus, Satyrus’ Euripides, and Philo’s Moses to Tacitus’ Agricola, Plutarch’s Cato Minor, and Philostratus’ Apollonius of Tyana. Some of these works are well-known, others less so, but B. provides a succinct introduction to each.1 Five of these precede, while five are contemporary with or follow the gospels; the subjects are politicians, poets, and philosophers.

We learn a great deal from B.’s analysis. Under the category of “subject,” computer analysis of verb forms reveals that Cato’s name occurs in 42.5% of all sentences in Plutarch’s biography (this is very high). Under “allocation of space,” analysis of the ten models demonstrates that often a single incident takes up what may appear to be a disproportionate amount of space: Nepos devotes 32% of his Atticus to the years of the Civil War; 17% of Plutarch’s Cato concerns the figure’s death; 26.3% of Philostratus’ Apollonius of Tyana concerns the subject’s imprisonment, trial, and death. Under “external features,” all of the works are in the mode of prose narrative, almost all are of medium length — between 10,000 and 25,000 words (a single papyrus roll could contain each work; most could be heard in one sitting). Under “Internal Features,” topics include ancestry, birth, education, character traits, deeds, death and influence. Many purposes are inferred: eulogistic, informative, didactic, apologetic, and polemic. I will not reproduce B.’s findings, but I do endorse his conclusion: although no two works follow the same precise pattern (most employ a chronological sequence; some emphasize dialogue or anecdote), all of these works share a sufficient number of features to be considered βίοι. B. is confident — and has persuaded me — that he has discovered a family resemblance of features for this admittedly “diverse and flexible genre” (184).

The next two chapters — chapter 8 on Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and chapter 9 on John — present B.’s compelling argument that the gospels are a type of ancient biography or βίος. In fact, he cogently maintains that if the gospels were sui generis, they would not have been accessible to most readers (or auditors) in the late first and early second centuries.

Chapter 8, “The Synoptic Gospels,” applies the familiar analysis from chapters 5-7 regarding opening, subject, external features, and internal features to the three “synoptic” gospels. Of these three, Luke follows most strongly the conventions of Graeco-Roman biography: his formal preface (1.1-4) “is usually seen as a significant attempt to relate his work to contemporary Graeco-Roman Literature” (188).2 But all three gospels conform to the family resemblance. Computer analysis of the verbs’ subjects finds that between a quarter and a sixth of all verbs have Jesus as the subject. This is in keeping with other ancient biography (e.g., Satyrus’ Euripides was the subject of 25.8%). With regard to allocation of space, the Last Supper, Trial, Passion, and Resurrection take up between 15 and 19%. As B. notes, these numbers fall within the range of the subject’s last days and death for the ancient biographies of Plutarch (17.3%), Nepos (15%), Tacitus (10%) and Philostratus (26%). B. concludes “the evangelists’ concentration on the Passion and death of Jesus can no longer be used as an argument against the gospels being βίοι” (193).

Regarding external features, the gospels are prose narrative, of medium length (11,000-19,000 words), and follow a chronological account with inserted topical material (the same mix as in βίοι). While earlier critics may have seen the evangelists as mere slaves of the oral tradition, B. finds the same “ability to select and edit a wide range of sources … similar to the use of sources by writers of βίοι” (198). Regarding methods of characterization, while it is true that there is nothing on Jesus’ appearance or physique, yet “such indirect characterization by word and deed is not unique to the gospels, but common in ancient literature, including βίοι” (199).

Of the internal features, the social setting of the first three gospels is hard to pin down. B. speculates that “it seems likely that their setting is further down the social scale than our other examples, but perhaps not as far down as used to be thought and certainly not beyond the reach of βίοι)” (207). As with ancient biography, we find more than one authorial purpose: encomiastic, didactic, preserving the memory of the subject, etc. B. finds a “congruence of aims” between gospel and βίοι in that “the clearest intentions seem to involve didactic and apologetic purposes” (210). As recently as 1977 scholars spoke of Mark’s “unique literary contribution” in creating a new genre without precedent. Yet B.’s analysis demonstrates that there is a “high degree of correlation between the generic features of Graeco-Roman βίοι and those of the synoptic gospels” (212).

I won’t go through chapter 9, “The Fourth Gospel,” in as much detail, but will only point to several intriguing findings. Analysis of verb subjects places John near the average of the other three gospels. Regarding allocation of space, 20% goes to the Last Supper, Passion, and Resurrection (very close to Mark’s 19%), though 48.6% goes to “Ministry and Signs.” The many stories, dialogues, and speeches are typical of βίοι, “especially those of philosophers and teachers” (221). In terms of “quality of characterization” (an internal feature), B. finds a “creative tension between the real and the unreal, the human and the divine [yet this] is not dissimilar from the mix of stereotype and reality found in both the synoptic gospels and Graeco-Roman βίοι” (227). Regarding authorial intention, B. finds a strong polemical strain “in defending the Johannine Community against Jewish attacks” (230). B. concludes that the fourth gospel lies clearly in the same genre as the other three even if John may not have been familiar with the texts of the synoptic gospels (raising the interesting possibility of two independent inventions of what B. dubs the “sub-genre” of gospel).

I might remark here that the first nine chapters — and each section within them — are marked by a concluding section that recapitulates the argument. While this introduces repetition, it also promotes clarity and helps to integrate B.’s persuasive interpretation. By the time we reach chapter 10, “Conclusions and Implications,” the argument (one of “cumulative weight”) has effectively been made. Once more B. places his argument in the context of three fields of scholarly criticism: redaction criticism (which established the evangelists as authors in their own right), critical literary theory, and analysis of literature contemporary with the gospels. B. feels his contribution has been in these latter two fields: a firm grasp of critical literary theory and a full appreciation of Graeco-Roman biography. Only by this interdisciplinary approach may a convincing argument be made that the gospels share at least as many features with ancient biography as other examples of ancient biography share with one another. The gospels are βίοι themselves.

B. then turns to implications, in particular the development and reception of the genre of ancient biography. Regarding development, within the group of βίοι the gospels seem to be closest to that of the lives of philosophers (rather than politicians or poets). While the earliest stories of Jesus would have been transmitted orally in early Christian communities, Mark is the first written gospel we have complete.3 Yet it is virtually impossible to say whether Mark consciously or unconsciously modeled his work on philosophical βίοι. Matthew and Luke demarcate a second stage by deliberately building on Mark’s work (John is either also in the second stage or has “reinvented the wheel,” that is, independently invented the “sub-genre” of the gospel).

B. acknowledges that the style and social setting of the gospels are more popular than most of the βίοι studied, yet he argues that “the penetration of literary ideas through ancient society was widespread” (244). Assumptions that literary knowledge was confined to the upper classes — or that early Christians were lower class — are not warranted. Early Christian communities were surrounded by Hellenic culture such as public debates, Cynic philosophers on street corners, the theatre, the courts — even lower class servants would have been present at aristocratic dinner-party entertainment.

Chapter 11, “Redactions and Developments,” a new chapter not found in the first edition, explores reactions to B.’s thesis in the twelve years since 1992. B. surveys book reviews (both positive and negative) and conferences, but also points to ways in which his work may be extended. The relationship of Luke-Acts to both biography and historiography continues to be debated — do both volumes have to belong to the same genre? In addition, there are three areas for further investigations: sociological setting, the gospels’ relation to Jewish writings, and the question of the centrality of Jesus as Christ.

First, we are now forced to rethink the gospels’ target audience and their ancient reception. While a gospel may have been written within the context of a single community, it may have been aimed at others outside (again, there’s a parallel with philosophical βίοι, which may be directed at a wider audience). Also there is the question of how the gospels relate to the narratives of Jewish prophets. Here B. suggests that narratives about rabbis emphasize anecdotes and teachings of Jewish leaders rather than their actions, while the “christological” focus of the gospels highlights the uniqueness of a particular person and especially the salvific activity of Jesus (307). The Torah was the center of Rabbinic Judaism, while the center of Christianity was a human person at center stage, Jesus (this is further explored in Appendix II: “Gospel Genre, Christological Controversy, and the Absence of Rabbinic Biography”). Regarding the centrality of Jesus, B. concludes that “the shift from unconnected anecdotes about Jesus, which resemble rabbinic material, to composing them together in the genre of an ancient biography is not just moving from a Jewish environment to Graeco-Roman literature. It is actually making an enormous Christological claim … [while] no rabbi is that unique … writing a biography of Jesus implies the claim that not only is the Torah embodied, but that God himself is uniquely incarnate in this one life, death and resurrection” (304).

I would briefly return to my initial point. For much of the twentieth century the study of Classics concerned particular authors (Homer, Plato, Sophocles, Vergil, Cicero, and Tacitus) while the study of the Bible and early Christianity “belonged” to other academic departments (or seminaries) associated with Oriental studies and religion. First- or second-year Greek courses might consist of reading Xenophon, Plato, or Homer, but not the gospel of Mark or Revelation. I will only mention my own success in offering selections from the gospels, the book of Acts, and Revelation during the final eight weeks of first-year Greek (we read significant continuous passages before the summer and leave the optative to the second year). But the larger point is whether the academic distinction between biblical and classical makes sense. In the past few decades, not only have Roman historians made extensive use of the Church Fathers, but graduate programs have now been redesigned to embrace “Ancient Mediterranean Studies,” “Classical and Near Eastern Studies,” and “Ancient Mediterranean Culture and Society.” One of our recent APA presidents asked the question: What is the future of Classics? The inevitable answer, in my view, is that we will move toward the study of the ancient world with a broader focus beyond the “canonical” works written in Greek and Latin. B.’s work blazes this path in admirable fashion, for its valuable methodology allows us to approach works traditionally outside the “classical” canon with an appreciation of their origins in a world under the influence of Graeco-Roman literature and culture.


1. E.g., Satyrus was a third- or second-century B.C.E. biographer from the Black Sea; he may have worked in Alexandria, yet he’s also called peripatetikos. The text of his life of Euripides, discovered early last century in Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1176, may most easily be found in M. R. Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Greek Poets (London: Duckworth, 1981), Appendix 5 (163-9). Working during the reign of the emperor Septimius Severus, Philostratus examines Apollonius, a philosopher and mystic from Tyana in Cappadocia, in his Lives of the Sophists.

2. On Luke’s reworking of Platonic material, see R. Dupertuis, “The Summaries of Acts 2, 4 and 5 and Plato’s Republic,” forthcoming in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative, ed. J. Brant, C. Hedrick, and C. Shea (Atlanta: SBL Symposium Series, 2005) and more generally T. Penner and C. Vander Stichele, edd., Contextualizing Acts: Lukan Narrative in Greco-Roman Discourse (Atlanta: SBL Symposium Series, 2003). On Homeric influence on Mark and Acts, see D. R. MacDonald, Homeric Epic and the Gospel of Mark (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000) and “The Shipwrecks of Odysseus and Paul,” New Testament Studies 45 (1999) 88-107.

3. J. S. Spong. Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes: Freeing Jesus from 2,000 Years of Misunderstanding (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996) highlights the significance of the oral tradition both in Jewish synagogues and in early sermons about Jesus.