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Gospels Interpreting the Literary Types

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The Gospels

The gospels are a unique genre brought about by the coming of the unique Son of God into the world.   In the ancient world, this genre was known as a bios, which focused on the key events and teachings of a person rather than on their physical description, personal development and their psychological thinking that we would normally find in modern biographies.  Each gospel is also kerymatic (from the Greek term kerygma meaning “proclamation”), thus the Gospels proclaim the good news about Jesus in written form.  Since the Gospels were written about rather than by Jesus, we have His teachings  interwoven into a narrative of His historical life and ministry, thus many of the rules governing narratives can be applied, with a few special considerations as noted below.

We first note that we have four gospels (the three synoptics and John) written from different perspectives for different reasons, each standing with equal authority, so each should be interpreted as a full complementary account within the context of the entire Gospel writings, and within the New Testament as a whole.  Ultimately, they must be understood as emerging from the OT concept of a holy, just and loving God acting to redeem fallen mankind.

A primary prerequisite in interpreting the gospels is to understand the historical context, including first century Judaism (Jesus was raised a Jew).  The best sources for this background info are Bible dictionaries, handbooks and commentaries.  We must also have a working knowledge of the various forms of language used in His teaching.  Jesus made frequent use of parables, hyperbole, proverbs, similes and metaphors, and even some Jewish idioms, just to name a few.  We've attempted to cover these forms elsewhere in this guide.

The majority of Jesus' teachings are presented with very little context, so we can usually benefit when studying a particular passage by consulting the parallel accounts in the other gospels.  This will often allow us to  “fill out” some historical details, but in doing so, we must be cautious not to blur the distinctions of each gospel as inspired by the Holy Spirit.

One portion of Jesus’ teachings that have been particularly troubling to readers is His expounding of the OT law, presenting to us what appears to be an impossible standard to uphold (the Sermon on the Mount, for instance).  We must keep in mind that these are not laws that we must keep in order to be saved or to maintain our salvation, but the ideal standard (based on the very nature of God), that we should strive to keep (under the control of the Holy Spirit) because of what God has done for us.

It is critical in our approach to the gospels, to not overlook or minimize the concept of the Kingdom of God (or Heaven) which permeated Jesus' teachings and ministry.  We must therefore,  always interpret the Gospels in the eschatological (end times) context of the NT mindset of the Jewish and Gentile believers.  Early Christians realized that Jesus' death and resurrection ushered in the “beginning of the end”.  So the Kingdom of God had arrived in the sense that, with the coming of Holy Spirit, many of the benefits and blessing had come, but would not be fully consummated until Jesus returns.

Finally, we must mention that the epistles greatly expand on the teachings of Jesus as presented in the gospels.  The gospels should, with a few exceptions, be interpreted in light of the didactic epistles, rather than the other way around.

Additional information on the gospels may be found in the NT Gospel Book Guide.

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