Every document has a literary form, which is a document structure that is designed to convey a specific kind of information. It can give us hints about the writer’s purpose and the kind of information that’s in the document. Here are three examples:
- A movie tells you a fictional story about fictional characters.
The writer wants you do identify with one of the characters, experience the story vicariously, and feel all the same emotions as if you had lived through it. The purpose is to entertain, not to teach, so it may contain implausible or impossible events. For example, a movie might tell the story of a high-school student who could travel in time.
- A scientific thesis has no story, no characters, just facts.
The writer does not intend for you to have an emotional reaction. The purpose is not to entertain, but to teach you something that you did not know before. For example, a scientific thesis might advance a theory, based on observations, that explains the changes in the migration patterns of Canadian moose.
- A news article tells you a real story about real people.
The writer does not intend to entertain or teach, but to inform you about real events that might affect you, and may even want to evoke emotions, such as outrage or empathy. For example, a newspaper article might inform you of a drought and encourage you to conserve water.
What is the Literary Form of a Gospel?
Today, we never hear a rumor that a war might be going on somewhere, because these days, communication between any two places on earth is virtually instantaneous.
In ancient times, there could actually be rumors of wars, because it wasn’t possible to check the newspaper or a news website, or switch to a news channel on television to find out if the war was actually going on. It could take days, weeks, or even months for people to find out that their country was in fact at war, whether the war was over, and whether their side won. To inform the public, the authorities posted public notices, which correspond to modern press releases. The notice was good news that the war was over and there was a new king. It explained the humble origins of the new king, recounted all the difficulties he had to overcome, and explained how he came to sit upon the throne. It would also extol the virtues of the new king. This literary form wasn’t a biography. The purpose of the document was to get people to admire, accept, and obey the new king.
That might sound familiar to you, because the gospels closely resemble those ancient “press releases.” John even says outright, in two places, that the purpose of the gospel is not to tell us all the details, but just to give us enough information so that we can have faith in Jesus Christ. The gospels aim to make us disciples, not teachers.
Outlining the Gospels
You can go to a Christian bookstore and buy a book that contains outlines of biblical books. They are all different from each other in some way, but that increases their value, because they give you a different overall view. The New Testament books are short enough that you can even go through one and outline them yourself. It’s a good method of Bible study.
That’s how we outline documents in our day. What outline did the gospel writers use to write the gospels?
The Outline that Ancient Greek Writers Used
In the New Testament era, Greek books and dramas were written with an Χ-shaped outline—but that’s the Greek chi, not the Latin letter X. Think of it as a diagram of the plot; it’s the shape of an hourglass. The story begins in a broad context, then the main character’s movements and actions are increasingly constrained until it reaches a turning point. In Greek literature, the turning point is called the “crisis.” Then the story broadens more and more until the conclusion. The writer might add a prologue before the action begins, to set the scene, and an epilogue after the conclusion, to draw conclusions or sum things up.
- Prologues in the Gospels
All of the gospels have a prologue before the action begins. Matthew and Luke explain Jesus’ human origin. Matthew tells it from Joseph’s viewpoint and Luke tells it from Mary’s viewpoint. Mark has a very abrupt prologue; just enough to jump into the story. John explains Jesus’ eternal, divine origin.
- As Jesus’ ministry grows, His freedom of movement narrows
All four gospels begin with Baptism of Jesus. Jesus’ ministry grows well, His following grows, but it becomes increasingly conspicuous to the authorities who suspect he’s up to no good. His ministry grows, but His movements are narrowed, until He is squeezed to the point that something has to give.
The outline’s hourglass starts broad, but gets narrower as it approaches the middle.
- The crisis in the gospels
“Crisis” is a Greek literary term for the turning point in the middle of the story, an event that changes everything. In the first three gospels, the turning point is the Transfiguration, which reveals who Jesus really is. In John, the turning point is when the authorities decide that they can only deal with Jesus by having Him killed, and everything begins to get worse.
The middle of the hourglass outline is its narrowest point. It squeezes Jesus tightly.
- Jesus suffers and prevails
The scope of the story increases from the crisis until the crucifixion. Fewer people are involved, but the importance of the events grow until they affect all people and even the entire universe.
The hour glass broadens from the middle to the top.
- The epilogues in the gospels
All of the gospels have an epilogue after the resurrection. It consists of Jesus’ resurrection appearances and His commission to His disciples. Up till now, the gospels had the events of Jesus’ ministry in the same order, but the resurrection appearances don’t seem to be in any particular order. The resurrection appearances were sudden, in different places with different witnesses, so it may have been difficult to determine what order they happened in. They are so astonishing and meaningful that at this point, the chronology doesn’t matter.
Mark has a brief epilogue that ends in the middle of a sentence. This is probably deliberate because it was a literary device used back then and even now. Haven’t you ever watched a movie that ended just as the remainder of the story became obvious? It’s frustrating because you want to see more—and that’s the point. The idea is look up from your reading and realize that all these happened in the real world. Mark abruptly dumps us out into the real world because that’s actually where the action continues.
The Outline of the Gospels
The literary form of a document guides you into understanding its content and the writer’s intent, and that’s true for the gospels as well.
The structure of the gospels is the same as an ancient “press release” that announces the end of a war. The purpose of the gospels is to motivate us to have faith in Jesus Christ, the victorious king, and to obey His commandments. Both the "press release" and the gospels reassure us that the King is seated on his throne, has begun his reign, and reigns right now.
What Happens After the King Returns Victorious?
A press release does not end with the words, “and we lived happily ever after. The end.” It’s an account of the events that led to our present situation and affect our future.
If a human king needed to leave his kingdom to go to a faraway place, he’d appoint a regent to rule in his place. When he returns, the regent would transfer the authority back to the king. Such a thing would not occur right after his victory and ascension when the “press release” is written and released.
The gospels also do not combine the glad news of Jesus’ victory with the sad news of His absence and the uncertainty about a regent whom we do not know. Since He is not absent (Matthew 28:20), He does not need a regent and did not appoint one. He reigns right now. When He returns, there will be no transfer of authority back to the King, because He never gave it up.
A human king has all power and authority. He appoints messengers, leaders, and administrators to carry out his will. They answer to him as the final authority. Likewise, Jesus has all power and authority. He has commissioned the church with messengers, leaders, and administrators to carry out His will and answer to Him. They answer to Him as the final authority.
How Can We Know That It Really Happened?
The gospel writers give details that allowed at least ancient readers to verify whether or not they were reading fiction. The ancient reader would know right off the bat whether Tiberias was the Roman Emperor, Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor, Caiaphas was the high priest, and Lysanias was the ruler of Abilene, and whether they were all in office at the same time. Ancient readers who were so inclined could also use this information to verify that the events in the gospels actually happened. Even after Pontius Pilate moved on to his next assignment, his office would have a record of his actions involving Jesus.
If the gospels were fiction posing as history, it would have been obvious even to the casual reader. They would have been useless for evangelism, the Christian movement would have been much smaller, and the gospels wouldn’t have survived to this day.
The Holy Spirit chose this literary form for the gospels to convey His message. Studying the form helps us understand its content.
What Happened Next?
As I said, the gospels dd not end with the words, “and they lived happily ever after. The end.” Life moved on. We know from secular history, for instance, what happened to Pontius Pilate after the events in the New Testament. He moved on to his next assignment, chose the wrong side in a game of office politics, and his career had less than a stellar end. That's no surprise given his weak character—instead of standing by his judgment and releasing Jesus, he couldn’t take the pressure, caved in to the crowd, and allowed Jesus to be crucified. The governor got out-maneuvered by the people he was supposed to be governing. This information helps to validate the gospels for us.
Who Wrote the New Testament?