Good News and the Gospels
An excerpt from David Limbaugh's new book The True Jesus: Uncovering the Divinity of Christ in the Gospels.
The Gospels represent a unique genre blending history, biography and theology. The word “gospel” is derived from the Greek “evangelion,” which means “good news.” The Greeks and Romans used the term in announcing news such as the accession of a new emperor. Paul uses the word throughout his letters to mean the coming, life, death and resurrection of Jesus (e.g. Romans 1:1-4, 16; 1 Cor. 15:1; 2 Cor. 2:12).
Old Testament writers used the concept of good news to announce the coming of Yahweh (God) to save His people. Isaiah writes, “Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, Behold your God!” (Isaiah 40:9). He repeats the concept twelve chapters later: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (Isaiah 52:7).
Isaiah reiterates the idea in chapters 60 and 61, the latter of which Jesus quotes when he opens a scroll to preach in Nazareth. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor,” declares Jesus. “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18).
Recognizing the genre of the New Testament books clarifies their messages and helps us to imagine how their initial readers received these works.
Though the Jews had different messianic expectations, they did anticipate the Messiah’s coming would be “good news,” and readers of the New Testament could later see the connection between those passages in Isaiah and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When Jesus inaugurates His public ministry in Nazareth, He proclaims that the good news has arrived and is embodied in His person.
Accordingly, the early Church comes to identify the message of good news with the messenger Himself — Jesus, the promised Messiah, is the good news. Mark underscores this idea when he begins his Gospel, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). It followed that all four written accounts of Jesus’ life and salvation message would come to be called the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, respectively.
What Genre do the Gospels Most Closely Fit?
Recognizing the genre of the New Testament books clarifies their messages and helps us to imagine how their initial readers received these works. Scholars, however, wrestle with pinpointing the genre or combination of genres in the Gospels. Many have compared them with various types of ancient literature, most notably the works of Plutarch, Suetonius, Philostratus and Diogenes. The main one of these was Plutarch (46-120 AD), a Greek who wrote parallel biographies of famous Romans and Greeks. In his work on Alexander the Great,
It being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and of Cæsar, by whom Pompey was destroyed, the multitude of their great actions affords so large a field that I were to blame if I should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomise the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives. And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore, as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others.
Evidently, Plutarch intended to write biographies focusing on the lives of great people and not as much on events, which are the province of historical writings. Steve Walton and David Wenham observe that scholars used to argue that the Gospels are not biographies, mainly because they were comparing them to today’s biographies, which treat the subject’s life more comprehensively from birth to death.
But these ancient biographies were different, and the Gospels resemble them in being incomplete accounts. The Gospels barely cover Jesus’ early years and, apart from His birth and a short section on events occurring when He was twelve years old, they focus almost exclusively on the three years of His public ministry, especially His final week. The Gospel writers, then, described Christ’s life in a literary form familiar to a wide readership in the Mediterranean basin.
Differences Between the Gospels and Biographies
But significant differences exist between the Gospels and the ancient biographies. Walton and Wenham explain that Jesus was not merely remembered by the early Christians — they “experienced Him as alive and present with them by the Spirit.” The Gospels, they argue, “are the church’s testimony about Jesus rather than biography.”
The Gospels are also unique because they emphasize Jesus’ last days, His death and His resurrection, especially in Mark, in which those subjects take up half the book. While these books bear some resemblance to ancient biographies and contain vital historical facts, they are like no other literature ever written because they uniformly proclaim the “good news” from God that is manifested in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.
The Gospels are also grounded in history. If the Gospel writers didn’t believe the events they recorded actually occurred, they wouldn’t have written their accounts, much less risked their lives to share the good news. If they hadn’t lived with Jesus and either witnessed His miracles, death, resurrection and ascension themselves, or learned about these events directly from witnesses, they wouldn’t have preserved and told their story. They were adamant about reporting exactly what happened and Jesus’ precise words because His actions and teachings affect our eternal destiny.
The New Testament writers paid strict attention to detail in the research, assimilation and recording of their messages, and they believed it was crucial that we trust their sincerity and historical reliability. Luke, for example, wants us to “know the certainty of the things” he is writing (Luke 1:4).
The Gospels are theological as well. They would not have been written but for the authors’ inspired determination to present Jesus Christ as the good news of God’s salvation. They report the climax of God’s salvation history — the culmination of Scripture’s narrative of redemption.
Despite the theological implications of the Gospels, however, the Gospel writers’ theological restraint is also noteworthy. Rarely do they explain the theological significance of the historical events they record, though John does so more than the others. They faithfully report the historical events and mostly leave the implications of the history to the epistles. This lends historical credence to the writings because had they been forgers, they would have written advocacy pieces.
Finally, the Gospels include apologetic elements, especially the Book of John, as evidenced by John’s assertion, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:30–31).
Following the Story of Jesus’ Life
Though scholars lack consensus on the genre of the Gospels, most agree they combine various genres. Professor William Klein maintains we should consider them portraits of Jesus’ life and ministry: “They are not pure history, though they do report what actually happened. They’re not pure biography, but … a good news account of Jesus’ life … written to demonstrate Jesus’ authority and significance for the story of God’s plan to redeem lost humanity.
A Gospel is, therefore, theological biography.” Similarly, Robert Guelich writes, “Formally, a gospel is a narrative account concerning the public life and teaching of a significant person that is composed of discreet traditional units placed in the context of Scriptures. … Materially, the genre consists of the message that God was at work in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection effecting his promises found in the Scriptures.”
The Gospels are a unique genre not just because they contain elements of various major genres, but also because they record a unique event — the Son of God’s entrance into human history.
This is an excerpt from David Limbaugh’s new book, The True Jesus: Uncovering the Divinity of Christ in the Gospels, and is reprinted with permission.
Holy Week at The Stream
For Palm Sunday: Deacon Keith Fournier’s Holy Week: Now It Begins, Now It All Begins
For Holy Week: Jennifer Hartline’s Has God Finally Met His Match?
For Holy Week: David Limbaugh’s Good News and the Gospels
For Maundy Thursday: David Mills’s Why Jesus Washed the Apostles’ Feet, and Why We Do It Too
For Good Friday: John Zmirak’s Have a Bleak and Blessed Good Friday
For Easter day: Esther O’Reilly’s Not Without Witness: An Easter Reflection
For Easter day: David Mills’s Did Jesus Rise? The Extreme Apostle Says Yes, the More Extreme Atheist Says No