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Lesson 6

The Gospels

What is uniquely literary about the Gospels of the New Testament?

More than Meets the Eye

“[In the Gospels,] single events . . . [leave] pictures printed lastingly on the mind’s eye. The Last Supper is a deathless memory, the prayer in Gethsemane contains all that a tragic poet need learn, all disloyalty is summed in the 30 pieces of silver received by Judas. These symbolic pictures are somehow staggeringly impressive without being sensational. Most are very quietly narrated and the colourings are subdued.”
— G. Wilson Knight, The Christian Renaissance

Are the Gospels “Unliterary”?

At first glance, the New Testament Gospels seem strange and difficult. Each tells the story of Jesus’ life, but only half of each Gospel is narrative in form. The rest of the material is what we might call “discourse” — speeches, parables, theological dialogues and debates, satire, and proverbs (also called “sayings” in the text). This diverse hodgepodge makes the Gospels seem unconventional — and even unliterary.

Structurally, the Gospels are story cycles, a common format in the ancient world but not well known to modern readers. Their plots are episodic and, in some ways, disjointed — events do not build on each other by cause and effect, but are brief and self-contained mini-stories within the story. Once an episode is finished, it drops out of sight forever. (In part, this may be due to the fact that the Gospels were originally circulated orally.)

The Gospels’ style often seems too plainspoken to be considered literary. They use simple, unembellished language. (An exception to this rule is the Gospel of John, which employs poetic imagery.) One sign of how spare the Gospels are: There is not a single physical description of the main character, Jesus, in any of the four Gospels.

Perhaps what most makes the Gospels most seem unliterary is their heavily didactic (“having the intention to teach”) content. While the entire Bible is religious, the Gospels are even more so. Unlike the richly human stories of the Old Testament, the Gospels focus intensely on doctrinal teaching.

Despite the evidence — simple style, didactic content, and piecemeal organization — the Gospels are not as unliterary as they appear at first, as we will see in the next section.

The Gospels As Stories

“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)

What Is Literary in the Gospels

Diverse as their material is, a closer look reveals that narrative is the glue that holds the Gospels 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. We also find a host of genres unique to the Gospels, including:

  • 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). Consider this passage:

“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. It 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.

Look at the conciseness, parallelism, and metaphoric language at play in these lines from Jesus’ most famous discourse, 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.

Examination of the Gospels allows us to see not only their literary qualities. Next we will look at what unifies this diverse material into four cohesive pieces of literature.

Archetypes in 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.

The Unity of the Gospels

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, what is 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 sprawling canvas, but when we look at the Gospels, it may be 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.

And Jesus is the protagonist, clearly 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 disbelief.

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.

In a way, 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.

Another feature that unifies the Gospels is geography. In each Gospel, we travel with Jesus from one locale to the next — the books 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.

Moving Forward

To round out our overview of the Bible as literature, the next lesson will bring us to one of the most adventuresome of all biblical genres: visionary writing. Prepare yourself for a wild ride.

Assignment: The Gospels

Read Chapter 7 in How to Read the Bible as Literature, pages 131-138.

Everything you read about the Gospels is secondary to actually reading the Gospels themselves. For the optimum experience, read each one in a single sitting. You can read a Gospel in about an hour.

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