Among all the New Testament books the gospels are probably the most well-known and at the same time the most taken for granted, particularly among Christians. We are very familiar with them but we have a disjointed understanding of them. We do not get how the main narrative blocks fit together within each gospel, how the gospels relate to one another, the Old Testament before it and the rest of the New Testament. Part of the problem is that we see them as a simple collection of anecdotal stories about Jesus. Well they are a collection of stories about Jesus but they are definitely not simple.
The first thing we must do in making sense of the gospels is recognizing them for what they are and taking them seriously on their own terms. Before we have a look at what scholarship has to say about them, the most obvious thing to note about them is that they are literature. (Words purposefully put together in a book form definitely qualifies as literature.) Some Christians do get a bit upset when the gospels or any part of the Bible is referred to that way. Though scripture is certainly more than ancient literature it is definitely not less. If we do not recognize that, we are ignoring the medium that God has chosen to communicate with us through the ages. Besides the more theological reason to take it seriously as literature, it is a book and how else are you going to make sense of it you don’t accept that?
Though the gospels (and the rest of the Bible) does not conform to modern literary conventions the casual reader of the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John can easily identify and make sense of many literary features. You can tell they are carefully arranged stories about a historical figure. This makes it a historical narrative and a biography of Jesus of Nazareth. It makes constant reference and allusions to a previous body of literature which we call the Old Testament. That previous narrative concerns the history of Israel and the gospels see themselves in some way as a continuation of that story. Overall it has a theological agenda because it’s about the principal character of the story Jesus and his relationship with the God of Israel. The climax of all these narratives is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. All these scholars of the Bible recognize this and it does not take special training to notice it. Moreover, I have found many times that if you pay careful attention to the gospel narratives you will more often than not come to the same basic insights and conclusions as professional scholars.
(New Testament scholarship, for the lack of a better way of putting it, is a hot mess. As a vibrant profession with a lot of academic pressure there is a lot of debate and there are not many consensus positions. That being said there is some general agreement you can find about the gospels.)
Once you identify something as literature you have to ask what type of literature it is. NT scholars consider the gospels as Greco-Roman bioi. Bios (singular) is a genre of historical, biographical narrative about important people and events that was popular in the ancient Roman era. It is from the same word that we get the English prefix for life or living in words such as biology and biogas. It is the non-fiction story of a life written according to ancient Greco-Roman historical standards. In this case it is the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Historical accuracy mattered to them very much and it is a standard that the gospels aspire to. The work of Richard Bauckham on the gospels as eyewitness testimony, that is, basically a collection of first-hand accounts of events has been ground-breaking. Though the gospels share the broad features of bioi they do not conveniently fit into that category. While scholars do not consider them suis generis, that is, a unique genre onto themselves, the category of bioi remains useful but inadequate. In other words, they are biographies but they are also something else.
As a modern reader, when you consider them as biographies they are very odd. Most of these quirks and oddities that we find such as lack of personal detail, lack of attention to a precise chronology as well as the presence of an agenda are actually common conventions of biographies of that period. Though it is a recognisable form of literature we should never expect it to conform to modern standards. There are some things however in them that are atypical of Greco-Roman bioi the most obvious being they are unapolgetically Jewish. NT scholar Michael F. Bird writes:
The Gospels are rooted in the Jewish Scriptures. They explicitly function as the continuation and fulfillment of the story of Israel. That is why they are replete with citations, allusions, and echoes of the Old Testament… The religious content and theological texture of the Gospels is heavily indebted to the worldview, socio-political landscape, and sacred texts of Judaism. Roman biography and Greek legends could refer to various religious literary works such as Delphic oracles or Homer’s Iliad. But for the Gospels, the story and worldview of Israel’s Scriptures are very much what the Gospels are about, namely, the God of Israel inaugurating his kingdom through Jesus the Messiah. It should not raise anyone’s eyebrows to say that the Gospels comprise a form of post-biblical Jewish literature with messianic faith in Jesus as its primary content. The main point of contact with the Gospels is that Jewish biographical literature contains a theography, a story about Israel’s God, working through an agent of deliverance, such as a prophet, king, or teacher. The protagonist leads the Jewish people at a time of national crisis or performs some miraculous deed at an important moment in Israel’s history. The Gospels possess a theological worldview, a geopolitical setting, didactic content, and a deliberate replication of Old Testament literary types that make some kind of connection with Jewish sacred literature irrefutable.
If you are not well-versed in the Old Testament and your imagination is not immersed in its worldview, it is notoriously difficult to appreciate the gospels. All the gospels present Jesus as the Christ which is a particular way of reading the Old Testament in the light of the events of Jesus’ life and seeing those events as the climatic fulfilment of Israel’s scriptures. If the Old Testament narrative did not exist, there would be no point in writing any of the gospels neither would the events of Jesus’ life proceeded in the way they did. As the scripture says, “I have come as it is written of me in the volume of the book.” In my estimation, this acute lack of hermeneutical awareness is the main problem Christians have with understanding the gospels. We are very weak in our Old Testament, the narrative soil in which the seeds of the gospel are sown and that is why we don’t get it. There are so many intertextual references, figural types and other literary tropes it makes the gospels, without exaggeration, sophisticated literary masterpieces. *Without knowing the narrative background of the texts, which themselves are complex, all these things pass over your head. It’s the equivalent of trying to understand Shakespeare or other classic European literature without an awareness of Greco-Roman mythology.
Another unconventional feature of the gospels in that period (and ours) which flows naturally from their Jewishness is their sharp theological focus. Though they are not theological tractates these Greco-Roman-style Jewish biographies are theologically sophisticated. The work of Dr Richard Hays has been seminal in helping us recognise the theological and literary complexities of the gospels. The ancient Roman world did not really do theology, at least not in any recognizable form to us. (N.T. Wright argues that Christian theology is actually a Pauline innovation.) So for a bioi to not only deal with theological issues but be steered by theology was highly unusual. The relationship between Jesus and God shapes and guides all the gospel narratives.
It is obvious to anyone who has read them that the four gospels are all very different from one another. Scholarship has helped us understand even more how diverse they are in many different categories. Of course there are many similarities, which is very important to recognise however, the early Christians would have not have preserved four gospels if they wanted the same thing. All of them have their own agenda, styles, themes, settings and a host of other things. These give us the benefit of stereoscopic snapshots of these historical events. Each gospel has to be confronted individually as well as a sub-canon. John is obviously the most different but each synoptic gospel is very different from the one another. Now the great diversity of the gospel texts makes it even harder to classify as a bioi. Though they are variegated, the polyphonic tones of the gospels all play one melody: Jesus.
Perhaps, the most non-conformist feature of the gospels as biographies is their subject. Greco-Roman bioi chose important figures as subjects of study. Though access to these books was not widely accessible, the figures they chronicled had to be of public renown. Though Jesus eventually became arguably the most significant figure in all of human history, at the time these mainly oral Jesus stories began circulating, he was far from worldwide fame. He was obviously the most important person to members of the early Jesus movement. The gospels were composed for this small but fast growing, trans-local, messianic movement. The gospels were written to preserve a holistic depiction of Jesus. They were not designed to be comprehensive or definitive but rather true renditions of the life of Jesus. That is what biographies are. They are never an exhaustive compendium of facts about an individual. They are constructed to tell us the story of a real person. Jesus is a three dimensional personality of historic proportions and the gospels give us four individual portraits of him. Each gospel has a stated goal but Jesus was at the centre. To his earliest followers he was the reason for their faith community and the fulcrum of their devotion. Even though determining the genre of the gospels is challenging, we can all easily say they are“Jesus Books.”
 Michael F. Bird, The Gospel of the Lord, p. 229, Eerdmans, 2014
 Michael F. Bird, Are You the One Who Is to Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question, Baker, 2009, 163.
 Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, p.259, Eerdmans, 2003. Dr Hurtado coined the phrase and you can see a brief summary of his views on the gospels and how the present Jesus here.
*I discuss further the issue of literary backgrounds in Quote Culture.
**For a closer look at the nature of the gospels as well as all round excellent resources for the lay person New Testament scholarship please visit Think Apologetics.