What “Genre” are The Gospels?

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Narrative? Historical? Biographical? Novel? This is a question that I’ve often asked, as I’ve read through the gospels. What genre are they? And why must there be four of them?

I think that there is an inherent misunderstanding of the purpose and point of the gospels when we ask this question. We are trying to fit these four works into categories about which the early never thought. So how should we think about the gospels?

Scot McKnight, in his book The King Jesus Gospelexplains, saying:

“Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of a basic fact. The early Christians weren’t describing the first four books as a kind of literature, as if ‘gospel’ was a genre of literature and already had a number in the Dewey Decimal System of ancient libraries. No, we need to say this loud and clear: they didn’t call the first four books of the New Testament ‘gospels’. Instead, they called each one of them the ‘gospel’. They were saying there was one Gospel, but it was written down in four versions, the (one) Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In fact, to call them ‘gospels’ as we now do so casually is to suggest that there was more than one gospel…[The gospels] declare the story of Jesus, and that story is the saving, redeeming, liberating story…The gospel and the gospels are one and same”

What McKnight wants to highlight here is that when Matthew, Mark, Luke and John penned Jesus’ life, they were thinking in terms of gospel. They weren’t thinking of genres. And, biblically, the gospel is the story of Jesus as the anticipated Messiah who realizes and fulfills all that the Old Testament looks forward to. Because of this, when we read the gospel(s), in a very real way, we must read them as lengthened tellings of the one gospel, centering around the one Savior, Jesus Christ.

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