A Synopsis of Richard Burridge’s “What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Concluding Remarks)

With this post we bring to a close our review of Richard Burridge’s excellent study on the Genre of the Gospels. The final two chapters-a conclusion and an addition to the second edition-outline Burridge’s conclusion and synthesize his arguments, as well as include reactions to the first edition of What are the Gospels?

Burridge concludes that while there are indeed differences between the Gospels and other similar βίος literature, these differences do not place them outside the genre of Graeco-Roman Biography. Further, Burridge is clear that in order for us to fully understand the Gospels, we must understand them as they were written, namely as biography, and specifically as βίοι Ἰησοῦ. He states

To avoid the errors likely in simple application of a text to ourselves without regard for the setting and background of either, appreciation of genre is crucial as a major ‘filter’ through which the author ‘encoded’ his message, and through which we may ‘decode’ the same (247).

As a result, Burridge see three implications that arise from this

  1. Any idea of the gospels as unique, sui generis works is a nonsense: authors cannot create, and readers cannot interpret, a total novelty.
  2. We must have the same generic expectations as the author and his original readers: trying to ‘decode ‘ the gospels through a genre of modern biography, when the author ‘encoded’ his message in the same genre of ancient βίος, will lead to another nonsense-blaming the text for not containing modern predilections which it was never meant to contain.
  3. The assignation of different genres to texts results in different interpretations: one listen to the TV News with different expectations than to a fairy story

What Burridge is getting at is that the authors of the Gospels did not invent something new when they put ink to papyrus. They wrote in a genre that was easily identifiable for readers in the first-century. So, if a modern-day reader tries to read and interpret any one of the Gospels (or any ancient document for that matter) by means of modern-day principles, he will no doubt be unable to ‘decode’ what the author ‘encoded’ because he reads with the wrong pair of interpretive glasses.

With this said, the author wished that there would have been just a little more in way of application of the thesis to the Gospels themselves. As mentioned in a previous post, attention to the Gospels was devoted to only two chapters. Two chapters hardly seem sufficient to apply ones thesis in a study like this.

Nevertheless, Burridge has managed to not only write a book of significant implications for the way we do Gospel studies, but he has also made such a study accessible and enjoyable for all. There was never a moment a dry, academic rhetoric; instead the discussion was engaging and interesting at every turn of the page. I look forward to reading more from Burridge in the future.

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