Principles For Interpreting the Gospels and Acts -- By: Ben Witherington, III

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 19:0 (NA 1987)
Article: Principles For Interpreting the Gospels and Acts
Author: Ben Witherington, III

Principles For Interpreting the Gospels and Acts

Ben Witherington, III

A. Genre of the Gospels

For many scholars who work with the Gospel material, it is axiomatic that the Gospels can no longer be seen as biographies of Jesus1 . There are even those such as R. Bultmann, who consider the Gospels sui generis, their Gattung being determined by and developed out of the unique primitive Christian kerygma.2 Granting that the Gospels contain the unique Christian message and that their form is partially determined by their content, it is not the case that the form of the Gospels is without analogy in certain types of biographical and historical writings of antiquity. While it is true that the Gospels are not biographies in the modern sense of the word (i.e., they do not reflect much interest in personal appearance, the sociological and psychological factors of character development, precise chronology), it does not follow that they were not intended or understood as biographies by the standards of antiquity. Some ancient biographies, such as Tacitus’ Agrieola, reflect an interest in chronology in its broad outlines, but a concern for precise chronology is not characteristic of either Hochliteratur or Kleinliteratur.3 Thus, the Gospels cannot be distinguished from ancient biographies on this basis.4

Further, depicting character development was not a sine qua non of ancient biography,5 and only Luke among the Evangelists shows any trace of such an interest (cf. 2.52). In Xenophon’s Memorabilia, no interest is shown in character development; rather, Socrates is presented as a mature character throughout. A common method of character portrayal in antiquity was the indirect method of allowing a person’s actions and words to indicate his character (cf. Plutarch, Life of Alexander, or Theophratus, Characters) which is also the main technique of the Evangelists. Though the Gospels make little attempt to set their main character against the background of his times, this was not always characteristic of ancient biographies.6 Further, description of a character’s physical features was not a universal trait for it is not found in Roman literature until Sallust and only became conventional in Suetonis’ day.7 Ancient biographical and historical writing was often didactic or apologetic or eulogistic, but never purely historical in purpose.

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