A moment's reflection will confirm that the Gospels cannot be classified as biographies, at least according our modern expectations of what biographies should be. After all, almost nothing can be found in the Gospels about Jesus' childhood or development toward adulthood. No probing analysis of the inner workings of his mind is attempted, nor is there any tracing of his road to self-understanding. What materials have been assembled in the Gospels focus almost exclusively on the last year(s) of Jesus' life, with even these materials disproportionately weighted toward his final week.
But if modern generic expectations are ruled out of order in Gospel analysis, prospects for classifying the Gospels according to ancient literary genres are not much brighter. It can safely be declared that there are no other ancient documents “just like” the canonical Gospels. As is commonly believed today, the Gospels are sui generis (i.e., of their own kind), a new literary genre arising out of a new religious movement.Werner Georg Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament, rev. ed., trans. Howard Clark Kee (Nashville: Abingdon, 1975), 37.
Yet positing the uniqueness of the Gospels so strongly is misleading. Gospels manifest general structural similarity with ancient tragedy in their common movement from initial tension, through rising tension, to climax, resolution, and epilogue. Points of contact can also be drawn to ancient comedy, in the sudden reversal from near disaster to final triumph (e.g., crucifixion and resurrection). More importantly, it is unreasonable to demand that documents grouped together under a single generic designation mirror each other so precisely as some would demand. In fact, ancient biographies appear to be a sufficiently diverse genre as to allow the Gospels to be classified among them, albeit as a unique subgrouping approaching the aretalogy (a narrative of the miraculous deeds of a hero, cf. Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana).Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, 46-49.
Whatever one's conclusions may be regarding Gospel genre, the composite nature of each Gospel shines through. The story of Jesus is comprised of distinct narrative units that have themselves invited generic classification. In reading the Gospels one will encounter parables, exorcism stories, miracle stories, controversy stories, wisdom sayings, warnings, prophecies, apocalyptic discourses, rulings, sermons, and simple historical narratives, along with many other genres often mixed in ways that defy straightforward classification. At the very least, the interpreter can gain insight by classifying a given text generically for the purposes of comparing it with similar texts.
The composite character of the Gospels has been fully appreciated by source critics (who explore for literary sources behind each Gospel) and form critics (who isolate and trace units of tradition back to their oral forms). Their work tended to shatter the Gospels into a thousand pieces that were then employed to reconstruct the history of Gospel tradition from its various phases of literary (written) expression, through the oral tradition of the primitive church, and on to Jesus insofar as that was deemed possible. Little interest was reserved for the evangelists themselves, who were viewed as mere compilers of various traditions that, through subtraction, addition, and modification, had lost much of their historical value.
But by the middle of the twentieth century, redaction criticism had begun to refocus attention on the evangelists, who were seen in truer light as creative authors and reflective theologians. Under the assumption that each evangelist had artfully woven materials together to achieve particular ends, it was but a short step to a more genuinely “literary” criticism that entertained works as coherent wholes. Accordingly, two diverse approaches to the Gospels have fallen into disrepute. On the one hand, as already indicated, it is no longer possible to hammer out issues of source and form criticism and suppose that one has “interpreted” a Gospel. For not until one has begun looking at a Gospel, not simply through it, will that Gospel itself come into direct view. On the other hand, the practice of producing Gospel harmonies is shown to be of dubious value. The blending of separate narratives into a single all-encompassing narrative wipes out the distinctive approach of each, and creates a fifth Gospel that supplants the other four.
The literary reading sensitive to the uniqueness of each Gospel, then, will approach the Gospels as coherent, relatively self-contained wholes.For a useful summary of the literary reading of a Gospel, see Davie Rhoads and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982). See also Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 33-86; 131-38. The contrast between the story's beginning and end will be carefully explored. Close attention will be paid to ways in which the plot is developed from initial conflict, through heightened tension, to final resolution. Plot movement will be tracked by noting such devices as causation, foreshadowing, flashbacks, repetition, and prophecy-fulfillment. An author's use of symbols will be traced. The role of characters within the development of the plot will be examined, along with observing which characters undergo change or show complexity. Characters that are aligned with the “correct point of view” in the story will be distinguished from the ambiguous or those set in opposition.
A literary reading will also attend to the selection, ordering, and arrangement of materials. Has one story been inserted within another to enhance their effect (cf. Mk 5:21-24)? Have stories been arranged in parallel or chiastic patterns to highlight their similarities (cf. Mk 2:1-3:6)? Has a recurrence of similar incidents created strong expectation or emphasis (cf. Mk 8:27-10:52)? What are the proportions between different kinds of material, and between different portions of the narrative? Why has a given story been placed here and not elsewhere? What has been omitted from the narrative that might, according to our expectations, have been included? Other standard agenda of literary analysis, such as the use of irony and figures of speech, will be pursed as well. Though definitive answers to these questions may not always be found, such probing characterizes the sort of reading that will bring many rewards.