Graeco-Roman Biography and the Gospels’ Literary Genre



This paper has tried to sum up the last thirty years of my research on the biographical genre of the gospels, both to explain how my work relates to Pope Benedict’s biography of Jesus in this Ratzinger Symposium and also to introduce some of the implications which the rest of the papers will develop further.

Firstly, we considered the Dogmatic Constitution from Vatican II, Dei Verbum, and the work of the young Joseph Ratzinger on the commentary thereon. Dei Verbum begins with the clear statement that Revelation is per Christum, Verbum carnem factum, ‘through Christ, the Word made flesh’ (DV 2); therefore Christology is absolutely central for any interpretation of the scriptures. However, ‘the gospels rightly have the supreme place, the primary testimony to the incarnate Word’, evangelia merito excellere, quippe quae praecipuum testimonium sint de Verbi incarnati, Salvatoris nostri, vita atque doctrina (DV 18); therefore, the gospels are crucial for our understanding of Jesus and the whole Bible, and must be properly understood.

Because the gospels have both divine and human authorship, attention must be given to discerning their genera litteraria in order to understand what the original writers really intended (DV 12). Translating this as ‘literary form’ takes us into German Form-Critical approaches of the early and mid-twentieth century with the dichotomy about ‘myth’ and history, missing the idea of the genre of the whole, and this has had a great impact on Ratzinger. This is further compounded by translating historicitas in terms of ‘historical documents’ (DV 19), which raises questions about the relationship of ancient and modern ideas of history writing. In addition, DV 19 follows the Vulgate’s use of veritas in its reference to Luke 1.4, which caused us to reflect upon the relationship of ἀσφάλεια or ‘certainty’ to ἀλήθεια as ‘truth’, as well as the differences between ancient and modern concepts of how it is understood. Therefore Christology and history are both of vital importance in the attempt to appreciate the intention of the gospel writers in depicting what Jesus said and did, what he taught and how he lived – and died. We concluded this initial section by noting how Joseph Ratzinger continued to reflect upon these principles when, as Pope Benedict, he wrote his account of Jesus of Nazareth in three volumes.

Secondly, I demonstrated that the form-critical views of the gospels as unique, sui generis, are no longer held as the dominant view in New Testament scholarship. They are important about the forms of the individual pericopae and gospel stories, but they miss the importance of the form or genre of the gospels as a whole. Proper attention to the genera litteraria of the scriptures (DV12) requires careful study of both ancient and modern genre theory, and how generic features indicate genre of a work;

In my doctoral research, I showed how the Gospels display the same generic features as ancient ‘Lives’, βίοι or vitae, which are different from modern biography. This can be particularly demonstrated by an analysis of their verbs’ subjects, which shows that over half the verbs in the gospels are given over to the deeds and words of Jesus, in exactly the same manner as other ancient biographies. Thus, there is now a broad acceptance of the importance of genre across New Testament scholarship and a recognition that the gospels share both internal and external generic features with examples of ancient bioi, or Lives. Therefore, the gospels must be interpreted through their primary focus on the life and ministry, deeds and words, teaching and activity, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Thirdly, from this biographical hypothesis, I have drawn out a number of Christological implications of this focus upon Jesus both for my own continuing research and for our Symposium together. A comparison with the non-canonical gospels demonstrates that most of them do not share this biographical genre, being focussed on words (sayings or revelatory discourses) or part of the life of Jesus (infancy or passion gospels). The absence of any examples of Rabbinic biography also demonstrates the Christological claim being made by putting Jesus centre-stage as the interpreter of the law, implicitly replacing the Torah. Similarly, we examined some implications for how to follow Jesus today in New Testament Ethics through holding together, in good biographical fashion, both Jesus’ deeds and words. Finally, we considered how we can read the four gospels as separate biographical narratives, each with their own account of Jesus’ deeds and words, which allows more room for the ancient understandings of truth and history. However, this does raise questions about any modern attempt to reconstruct just one version of Jesus’ biography.

Finally, we have demonstrated that both Joseph Ratzinger and Richard Burridge agree with Dei Verbum that a Christological Hermeneutic is crucial: Revelation is “per Christum, Verbum carnem factum” (DV 2).

“This Christological hermeneutic which sees Jesus Christ as the key to the whole”

(Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, 2007, p.xix)

This biographical genre “has distinct hermeneutical implications for the gospel studies, reaffirming the centrality of the person of Jesus of Nazareth”

(Richard Burridge, What are the Gospels?, 1992/2004, p. 251)


© The Revd Canon Professor Richard A. Burridge. October 2013.

Dean of King’s College London and Professor of Biblical Interpretation

Aula nuova Sinodo - 26.X.2013