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Genre Matters: What Kind of Bioi are the Canonical Gospels?

While there may be a desire to read the gospels in a way that is analogous to the Christian letters in circulation in the first century, this would be a mistake. The gospels are not letters, they are bioi, and they conform to the basic structures and expectations of that genre. It is unclear if any Greco-Roman biographers ever intended for their works to be read by a few select persons. It is possible that this is the case, but it needs to be proven, not assumed. The same is true for the gospels. It may be the case that they were written for small, select Christian groups/communities, but this assertion needs to be proven and not assumed.

See Also: Why Bios? On the Relationship Between Gospel Genre and Implied Audience (LTS 518, London: T. & T. Clark, 2015).

By Justin Marc Smith
Assistant Professor
Department of Biblical and Religious Studies
Azusa Pacific University
April 2015


The title of this essay has two meanings. The first is simply that this essay intends to take into account the role and importance of genre in reading and interpreting texts. In this case, genre matters as it relates to the interpretation and purpose of the canonical gospels. Second, genre matters as an important interpretative tool. Recently, Klink has critiqued genre study, as it relates to gospel audiences, and has deemed it a “blunt tool” and one with “limited” value in assessing gospel audiences (2010, 158-59). Klink is correct to point out some of the limitations of genre study, but the impression is left that genre study is of almost no value. I would argue that genre does indeed matter. It gives us a window (if a limited one) into the process of a writer and, at points, it represents a choice on the part of the author. The author chooses to present material in a particular genre and that choice of genre can be indicative of the author’s purpose. Understanding the purpose for writing can often be the difference between correct and incorrect interpretation/communication; and that is important.

Since the groundbreaking work of Richard Burridge (2004) the scholarly consensus has been moving in the direction of understanding the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) to be examples (of varying quality) of Greco-Roman biography. These bioi (Greek: lives) or vitae (Latin: lives) recount the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth through a literary presentation of his words and deeds. However, little has been done to suggest what kind or type of bios the gospels might be. A potential corollary of the questions surrounding what kind of bios the gospels are, is a grappling the potential audience for this kind of literature. Richard Bauckham has raised questions as to the relationship between the genre of the gospels and the potential (or assumed) audience, but he has not advanced the question much further (1998, 28). What has been needed is a fresh approach to both gospel genre and audience. New approaches will provide a means for assessing both the gospels as examples of literature of a particular genre (and subgenre) and the audience group that will be most appropriate to them.

Types of Bioi

The German scholar Freidrich Leo was one of the first (if not the first) to attempt to define the ‘types’ or ‘kinds’ of biographies present in Greco-Roman biography (1901). Leo argued that bioi can be broken down into two basic types: 1) Peripatetic Biography (named after the school associated with Aristotle; and 2) Alexandrian Biography (named after the school of grammarians in Alexandria (1901, 316-17). Peripatetic biographies tended to be arranged chronologically and are often associated with the work of Plutarch. Alexandrian biographies tended to be topically arranged and were often associated with the work of Suetonius. Leo’s designations were helpful in the sense that he provided some organizational principles to a genre of literature that grew and developed over an extensive period of time (4th century BCE-4th century CE, aprox.). It arranged bioi along the lines of the arrangement of the material (chronological vs. topical). However this arrangement was a bit too simplistic and it left a number of important questions unanswered.

Both Fritz Wherli and Klaus Berger have attempted to address the short-comings of Leo’s work by offering their own classifications for bioi. Wehrli has argued for a division of bios along the lines of subject matter (lives of philosophers and poets; lives of generals and political leaders; and lives of writers/literary figures) (1973, 193). Berger has attempted to combine the typologies of Leo and Wherli by suggesting that bioi be divided as follows: 1) Encomium: following the practice of speeches given to honor an individual at death; 2) Peripatetic: as a chronological presentation of a subject’s life; 3) Popular-Novelistic: written for entertainment; and 4) Alexandrian: a systematic/topical presentation of the life of an individual (1984, 197-8). To complicate matters more, Charles Talbert has offered another typology that takes into account many of the innovations offered by Leo, Wherli and Berger while trying to assess the purpose of various types of bioi (1977, 92-3).

There is a sense in which all of these attempts to classify and sub-classify Greco-Roman biography become overwhelming, if not altogether unhelpful. Furthermore, there are a number of questions left unaddressed. It is helpful to think about how ancient biographers organized their material or what subjects they wrote about or what purposes they may have had for writing. But these explorations relate very little to the audiences and concerns of the gospel writers themselves. These evangelists chose to disseminate the traditions about Jesus of Nazareth through this genre, bios. Were their concerns and their audiences/audience groups similar to those of these other ancient biographers? What might this tell us about the scope and purpose of the work of the Evangelists?

Gospel Genre and Gospel Audiences

In some sense it might seem odd to pose questions based on the relationship between gospel genre and gospel audiences. Scholars of the gospels have not always had the sort of genre certainty that is afforded to certain other texts in the New Testament, and genre serves as an important interpretive feature. Put simply, genre gives us some indication as to how we should begin to read and interpret a text. Genre gives meaning to a text and provides interpretative control. Bauckham has suggested that one of the failures of New Testament scholars has been the tendency to read the canonical gospels as though they were letters or epistles (1998, 28-29). This tendency has led to the assumption that the canonical gospels, like Paul’s epistles, were written to small and/or definite Christian communities. These Christian communities or audiences account for the differences (and perhaps the similarities) that are present in the Synoptic Gospels and may account for the profound distinctiveness of the Gospel of John. The significant issues that arise here are these: the canonical gospels are NOT epistles and so should not necessarily be read like epistles. We should also refrain from assuming that the same sorts of social locations and concerns that compelled Paul and others to write letters also compelled the Evangelists to write the gospels. It is here that gospel genre becomes helpful (at least in part) as a way through the confusion.

If we accept that the gospels are examples of bioi, then we would expect for the gospels to be intended for audiences similar to that of other bioi. So what sorts of audiences were envisioned for the readers of bioi? Isocrates, one of the first authors of Greek biographical literature (4th century BCE), suggests that the purpose of biographical writing is to reach a wide audience (Evagoras, 73-75). Isocrates argues that festivals, statues and portraits honor great people, but only those who come to the location where the festival is held or where the statue resides will be able to know about that greatness (Evagoras, 73-75). Certainly this is a good thing but it would be better to honor great people with texts that speak about their lives. In this way, these texts can live on and reach as many people as possible and this great person (Evagoras, the king of Salamis) will be remembered and emulated for generations to come. The purpose for writing seems to be bound up in the desire for a wide (ideal) audience to: 1) know about this individual; and 2) follow their example. This theme of remembrance (and possible emulation) is picked up and utilized by a number of biographers after Isocrates (Xenophon, Agesilaus; Nepos, Atticus; Tacitus, Agricola; and Porphyry, Plotinus). We can imagine that the implied audiences of these texts could include friends and supporters of the subject as well as those who were inclined to be interested in reading about great figures in history. These texts could have propagandistic purposes and their audiences could be quite large. Unlike the audiences envisioned by New Testament scholars for the gospels, there is little to no evidence to suggest that the writers of bioi or vitae ever wrote for/to small or definite audiences.

This returns us to the gospels. What kind of bioi are they? The gospels can find space in any of the previously mentioned typologies, but those typologies deal little with issues of audience. Since audience has become an important element interpreting the gospels, giving some consideration to it when thinking about genre would seem to be helpful. My current research has proposed a new typology for the; 2) Non-Contemporary Open; 3) Contemporary Focused; and 4) Contemporary Open (2015, 219). Non-Contemporary Focused biographies would have been written outside of the time of direct eyewitness testimony and aimed at a more distinguishable audience. These would include the works of Philo (Moses), Arrian (Anabasis of Alexander) and Plutarch (Parallel Lives). The audience envisioned here could be those of a particular philosophical school or those of a particular educational/cultural level. Non-Contemporary Open biographies would be biographies written outside of a timeframe when the author had direct access to eyewitnesses (or was an eyewitness her/himself) and written to an indistinguishable audience (no discernable audience group). Some examples of this type would be most of the examples in Cornelius Nepos (de Viris Illustribus), the anonymous Life of Aesop and some of the biographies of the Caesars by Suetonius (Julius, Augustus and Tiberius). Contemporary Focused biographies would be written within living memory of the subject and be aimed at a more discernable audience. Examples would include Isocrates’ Evagoras, Xenophon’s Agesilaus and Tacitus’ Agricola. Finally, Contemporary Open biographies would be written within living memory (or within the period of direct eyewitness testimony) and directed toward and indistinguishable audience. Examples of this type would include the work of Lucian (Demonax), the anonymous Life of Secundus the Silent Philosopher, and some of the work by Suetonius (Vespasian, Titus and Domitian). Of these four options, the canonical gospels are best understood as examples of Contemporary Open bioi.

Genre Matters and The Gospels

Why does any of this matter? If we understand the canonical gospels to be of a certain type of literature, then new possibilities are opened for interpretation. Often, the writers of Contemporary biographies had a personal relationship with their subject. Isocrates was friendly (if not friends) with Evagoras. Xenophon had a relationship with Agesilaus as he served under him in the military. Tacitus had a personal relationship with this father-in-law Agricola. These are just a few examples of the sorts of personal relationships that might exist between an author and subject. The gospels fit comfortably into this relational matrix. The Evangelists also had a personal relationship (at least as teacher/mentor relationship) with their subject, Jesus of Nazareth. Their relationships to Jesus may have been less direct than those mentioned above, but the fact that they understood Jesus to be a teacher of note or possibly a divine or semi-divine figure suggests that their reasons for writing were more than academic. The Evangelists cared for the person Jesus and wanted to record his life in particular ways. This is not unlike the motives of other Contemporary biographers. They wrote because they cared (in some way) about their subject and they wrote in a genre that was well suited to telling the story across audience groups.

While there may be a desire to read the gospels in a way that is analogous to the Christian letters in circulation in the first century, this would be a mistake. The gospels are not letters, they are bioi, and they conform to the basic structures and expectations of that genre. It is unclear if any Greco-Roman biographers ever intended for their works to be read by a few select persons. It is possible that this is the case, but it needs to be proven, not assumed. The same is true for the gospels. It may be the case that they were written for small, select Christian groups/communities, but this assertion needs to be proven and not assumed. The genre of the gospels suggests that these were texts of a certain type and a type that had appropriately large audience groups in mind. To a certain extent this audience expectation is bound up in the act of writing and publishing in general. To publish or to write for others is to want that work to be read by others. This expectation is expressed well in the work of Isocrates (Evagoras, 73-75). To write about a person of importance is to want that written memorial to live on in absence of the person. It would seem likely that the Evangelists have such a purpose: they wanted the life of Jesus to persist in their written words.


The precarious nature of the Christian movement in the first century CE necessitated that they have a narrative that would resonate positively in the Greco-Roman world. The writers of the gospels adopted a Greco-Roman genre and edited the Jesus traditions into it. They wrote of the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth not just to bolster Christians in the face of their fears and concerns. But they did so as a way to reach new and potential converts and as a means of justifying their on-going belief in the crucified Jesus. The act of writing a biography of Jesus would have been an important act for the evangelists as they sought to address misconceptions about Jesus (and his followers) from both within and outside the Christian movement. In this way the gospels served as a recording of the words and deeds of Jesus for Christians and non-Christians alike. This work served to protect Christians from false doctrine (an issue in the early Church) and to correct the erroneous stories and traditions leveled at early Christian groups. In appreciating the genre of the gospels we are better able to read and interpret them. We see them as works about Jesus of Nazareth written by those who cared about them. They may give us a glimpse into the struggles of early Christians but they should not be used to reconstruct the specifics of any one Christian community. They are, at their core, about Jesus and they should be read in that way. They may give us access to the actual person and work of Jesus, they may not. But their genre suggests that we read them through the lens of Greco-Roman biography and not as letters written to specific communities. If we persist in reading the gospels as letters we will continue to obscure the purpose of the gospels, which is to articulate something about the person, Jesus. In this way, genre truly matters.


Bauckham, Richard J. 1998. “For Whom Were Gospels Written?” In The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences, edited by Richard J. Bauckham, 9-48, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Berger, Klaus. 1984 “Hellenistische Gattungen Im Neuen Testament.” ANRW II, 25.2: 1031-1432.

Burridge, Richard A. 2004. What Are the Gospels? A Comparison With Graeco-Roman Biography, 2nd edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Isocrates. 1986. Isocrates, Volume III: Evagoras, Helen, Busiris, Plataicus, Concerning the Team of Horses, Trapeziticus, Against Callimachus, Aegineticus, Against Lochites, Against Euthynus, Letters. Translated by Larue Van Hook, LCL 373. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Klink III, Edward W. 2010. “Conclusion: The Origin and Function of the Gospels in Early Christianity.” In The Audience of the Gospels: The Origin and Function of the Gospels in Early Christianity, ed. Edward W. Klink III, LNTS 353, 153-166. London: T. & T. Clark.

Leo, Friedrich. 1901. Griechisch-Römische Biographie Nach Ihrer Litterarischen Form. Leipzig: Teubner.

Smith, Justin Marc. 2007. “Genre, Sub-Genre and Questions of Audience: A Proposed Typology for Graeco-Roman Biography.” JGRChJ 4: 184-216.

Smith, Justin Marc. 2010. “About Friends, By Friends, for Others: Author-Subject Relationships in Contemporary Graeco-Roman Biographies.” In The Audience of the Gospels: The Origin and Function of the Gospels in Early Christianity, ed. Edward W. Klink III, LNTS 353, 49-67. London: T. & T. Clark.

Smith, Justin Marc. 2015. Why Bios? On the Relationship Between Gospel Genre and Implied Audience. LNTS 518, London: T. & T. Clark.

Talbert, Charles H. 1977. What Is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels. Philadelphia: FortressPress.

Wehrli, Fritz. 1973. “Gnome, Anekdote Und Biographie.” Museum Helveticum 30: 194-208.

Comments (3)

There seems to be some loaded language here - protection against false doctrine rather than doctrine that they considered false. However, it seems contradictory to say that they yield no insight into the teaching of any Christian sub-group, since the distinction between true and false doctrine implies that different groups existed.
Caring about Jesus seems a concept with so much modern freight that I might avoid it. Being concerned to impart true knowledge of him might be better?
#1 - Martin Hughes - 04/18/2015 - 13:41

Martin, thanks for your notes and corrections. "doctrine that they considered false..." might in fact be the better way to state it especially as it related to misconceptions about Jesus and the Jesus movement. I don't argue that the Gospels "yield no insight into the teaching of any Christian sub-group," but that they cannot be used effectively and consistently to reconstruct specific communities. We can paint in broad brush strokes but the Gospels don't give us the ability to reconstruct specific Christian communities in detail. Care is appropriate here given the person nature of the relationship between the Evangelists and Jesus (subject). It's the same kind of 'care' shown by other biographers. It implies a personal relationship and not just a concern for correct knowledge. This sort of concern/care is found in other examples of contemporary biographies as suggested above.
#2 - Justin Smith - 04/18/2015 - 16:56

I see what you mean about caring. I think your emphasis on the 'for everyone' nature of the Gospels is very welcome. Maybe two points follow from this which are of significance in the Myth/history argument. It seems likely that Christian writers were saying openly and 'for everyone' that their group had its origins in the teachings of someone living in Pilate's Palestine - and no one reacted as if this were in the least degree implausible, surely because it is not. This is a fact for the mythicists to, as it were, put in their pipes and smoke.
On the other hand it is. by the same token, pointless for the anti-mythicists to recite the thinly expressed Latin testimonia to Jesus: they were simply repeating, with no additional detail (that I for one can see) indicating an independent source, what the Christians were telling 'everyone'.
#3 - Martin Hughes - 04/29/2015 - 13:45

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