Gospels As Historical Narratives
Historical narratives are stories about people, places, and events from the past. They are narratives, which means simply that they are stories.
Historical narratives from the ancient world typically are told in three parts. The first part introduces the main characters and their goals. The second and largest part involves the presentation of challenges that these characters face in achieving the goals. The final part is the conclusion about how the characters did or did not achieve their goals.
The Gospels begin by introducing Jesus as their main character and his goal of bringing about God's plan for salvation. The main middle sections present the challenges and obstacles Jesus faced in realizing his goal. They each conclude with a description of Jesus' achieving his goal and the outcome this has.
More specifically, the Gospels are also related to Greco-Roman biographies. These biographies described the characters and stories of great leaders, defended their central actions or teachings, and served as a way to pass on the legacy of the great leader. Clearly, the Gospels share these similarities with Greco-Roman biographies and are related.
Even though Greco-Roman biographies were popular in the times and places in which the Gospels were written, however, there are also some important differences. Unlike Greco-Roman biographies, the Gospels were not initially written for a broad audience but for the small early Christian church. They have a specific religious intent more particular than generic moral education. This is particularly evident in the lack of emphasis on the personal qualities and characteristics of Jesus. If the point of the Gospels were to present Jesus as a moral figure to be emulated, we readers are left with little material with which to base our imitation. Instead, the uniqueness of Jesus as one who reveals God and redeems his people is emphasized. Much of the middle section of Gospel narratives, for instance, is spent on his last week and the immediate preparation for his sacrifice. The Gospels do not present Jesus as a great leader worthy of copying or a great teacher whose teachings should be retold. Instead, he is the Lamb of God.
Even more specifically, the Gospels are part of the genre of biblical historical narrative. More precisely, the Gospels are a specific type of biblical historical narrative that borrows elements from older biblical historical narratives like the stories about David in the Old Testament and elements from secular Greco-Roman biographies. This means that once we know how these genres work, we will be in a better position to get what the Gospels are telling us.
Biblical Historical Narratives
The general genre of the Gospels is historical narrative. More precisely, the Gospels are a specific type of biblical historical narrative that borrows elements from older biblical historical narratives like the stories about David in the Old Testament and elements from secular Greco-Roman biographies. This means that once we know how to read biblical historical narratives, we will be in a better position to get what the Gospels are telling us.
In both the Old and New Testaments, historical narratives share the same purpose of explaining and defending God's redemptive plan or covenant with his people. For example, the historical narrative of Exodus 1-19 provides the historical foundation for the Mosaic Covenant found in Exodus 20-24. Similarly, when the covenant is renewed in Joshua 24, the historical narrative of Joshua 1-23 provides its basis. When the Davidic Covenant of 2 Samuel 7 appears, it too follows the historical narrative of Judges and 1 Samuel. So also, the Gospels each give a historical foundation for the New Covenant established by our Messiah Jesus. You can read how these historical narratives parallel each other in passages like Exodus 24:8 and Luke 22:20.
"Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, 'Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words." (Ex 24:8)
"Likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, 'This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.'" (Lk 22:20)