The Gospels as biographies

(posted in response to a comment by r10b)

[Rudolph] Bultmann led questers [for the historical Jesus] up another false trail by his strong assertion that ‘There is no historical-biographical interest in the Gospels’.

The influence of this view, that the Gospels are not biographies of Jesus, persists to the present day. However, it is too little recalled that on this point Bultmann was reacting against the Liberal questers’ confidence that they could penetrate back into Jesus’ self-consciousness and could trace the development of his self-understanding as Messiah (messianic self-consciousness). …

The original questers were attempting to write biographies on the model of the nineteenth-century biography, with its interest in the personal life and development of the biographical subject. So what Bultmann was actually decrying was the attempt to write a modern biography of Jesus.

Since the 1970s, however, the question of the Gospels’ genre has come under increasingly close scrutiny, and it has become much clearer that the Gospels are in fact very similar in type to ancient biographies (Greek bioi; Latin vitae).

That is, their interest was not the modern one of analysing the subject’s inner life and tracing how an individual’s character developed over time. Rather, the ancient view was that character was fixed and unchanging; and the biographer’s concern was to portray the chosen subject’s character by narrating his words and deeds. Which is just what we find in the Synoptic (indeed all the canonical) Gospels, though not, it should be noted, in the other [apocryphal] Gospels now frequently drawn into the neo-Liberal quest.

Moreover, it is clear that common purposes of ancient bioi were to provide examples for their readers to emulate, to give information about their subject, to preserve his memory, and to defend and promote his reputation. Here again the Gospels fit the broad genre remarkably well.

Of course, it remains true that the Gospels were never simply biographical; they were propaganda; they were kerygma [proclamation intended to win converts]. But then neither were ancient biographies wholly dispassionate and objective (any more than modern biographies).

In other words, the overlap between Gospel and ancient biography remains substantial and significant.

— James Dunn, Jesus Remembered, pp. 184-85. I have broken up Dunn’s paragraphs to make this excerpt easier to read.


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