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What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography

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Foreword by Graham Stanton Richard Burridge's acclaimed study of the Christian Gospels is significantly updated and expanded in this second edition. Here Burridge engages the field of Gospel studies over the last hundred years, arguing convincingly for viewing the Gospels as biographical documents of the sort common throughout the Graeco-Roman world. In pursuing the questi Foreword by Graham Stanton Richard Burridge's acclaimed study of the Christian Gospels is significantly updated and expanded in this second edition. Here Burridge engages the field of Gospel studies over the last hundred years, arguing convincingly for viewing the Gospels as biographical documents of the sort common throughout the Graeco-Roman world. In pursuing the question of his book's title, Burridge compares the work of the Christian evangelists with that of Graeco-Roman biographers. Drawing on insights from literary theory, he demonstrates that the widespread view of the Gospels as unique is false and discusses what a properly "biographical" perspective means for Gospel interpretation. New to this second edition of What Are the Gospels? are a long final chapter detailing the recent paradigm shift in Gospel scholarship -- a shift due in large part to this very book -- a foreword by Graham Stanton, and an appendix on the absence of comparable early Jewish biographies.


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Foreword by Graham Stanton Richard Burridge's acclaimed study of the Christian Gospels is significantly updated and expanded in this second edition. Here Burridge engages the field of Gospel studies over the last hundred years, arguing convincingly for viewing the Gospels as biographical documents of the sort common throughout the Graeco-Roman world. In pursuing the questi Foreword by Graham Stanton Richard Burridge's acclaimed study of the Christian Gospels is significantly updated and expanded in this second edition. Here Burridge engages the field of Gospel studies over the last hundred years, arguing convincingly for viewing the Gospels as biographical documents of the sort common throughout the Graeco-Roman world. In pursuing the question of his book's title, Burridge compares the work of the Christian evangelists with that of Graeco-Roman biographers. Drawing on insights from literary theory, he demonstrates that the widespread view of the Gospels as unique is false and discusses what a properly "biographical" perspective means for Gospel interpretation. New to this second edition of What Are the Gospels? are a long final chapter detailing the recent paradigm shift in Gospel scholarship -- a shift due in large part to this very book -- a foreword by Graham Stanton, and an appendix on the absence of comparable early Jewish biographies.

41 review for What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Russell Ince

    Richard A. Burridge - What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography When I began reading ‘What are the Gospels’ I did wonder what, if any, were the ulterior motives for Burridge in arguing that the gospel genre was Βίοι. As an agnostic-atheist I have learned that even the most sober and scholarly Christian academics are sometimes motivated or influenced by their faith rather than by purely honest intellectual curiosity. This is not to say that non-Christian academics have no biase Richard A. Burridge - What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography When I began reading ‘What are the Gospels’ I did wonder what, if any, were the ulterior motives for Burridge in arguing that the gospel genre was Βίοι. As an agnostic-atheist I have learned that even the most sober and scholarly Christian academics are sometimes motivated or influenced by their faith rather than by purely honest intellectual curiosity. This is not to say that non-Christian academics have no biases of their own which affect their work but it has been noted that New Testament scholars often have the most difficulty in overcoming their biases because of their various theological commitments. And having read elsewhere about the quest for the historical Jesus I have come to realize just how much historians (and Christians) rely on the gospel material, and so this was very much at the forefront of my mind before I had even picked up the present work. In reading the book, however, I learned that Burridge actually began with the intention of arguing the exact opposite position to the one he eventually adopted and thus seems unlikely to have had any faith-based objectives here. I very much doubt that Burridge, in arguing that the gospels are a sub-species of Graeco-Roman Βίοι, is serving any wider apologetic purpose whatsoever. Perhaps this is only my own axe-grinding atheistic agenda coming through but, when it comes to the implications of his work however, Burridge seems completely blind to or disinterested in, at least what I consider to be, the more salient points; namely, the reliability of the gospel stories and sources and also the strong parallels they share with other tales from Graeco-Roman literature. To give just one example from Burridge’s own work, the Last Supper of Jesus is eerily mirrored in Plutarch’s Life of Mark Antony: “Another extended death scene occurs in Plutarch’s Antony where we have a ‘last supper’ with friends, with discourse and instruction, on the night before the subject’s death...” (p.166) And a similar story is also described in Plutarch’s Cato Minor. Did both Jesus and Mark Antony or even Cato have a last supper as described or are these stories merely works of apophthegmatic fiction, or did the one happen and not the other? The answer of course is that (unless we regard faith as epistemologically sound) we can never be sure. However, given that Plutarch himself distinguished Βίοι from history, I would guess that many of these stories represent plausible yet unhistorical works of literary art rather than historical reportage. Burridge amply succeeds in demonstrating the many parallels between the gospels and other Βίοι with regards to both form and content but seems to shy away from the implication that the life of Jesus, whether itself real or imagined, was presented by the evangelists in a way reminiscent of other stories which deal with other figures from history and legend. Another example is seen in Evagoras’ birth, which was said to have been accompanied by omens or portents, his ancestry was traced back to Zeus and his precocious nature as a boy is described. By demonstrating that the Life of Jesus shares similarities with other figures from Βίοι, Burridge is effectively demonstrating where the Christians may have got their ideas from. These parallels have been noted by a variety of authors whose efforts have long been derided as the proverbial and pejorative ‘cottage industry’ and whose scholarly grounding and authority has also been mocked. The accusation of ‘parallel-omania’ has been made and a concerted effort is now underway to systematically ignore these questions. If there is blame to be laid however, at least some must rest on New Testament scholars themselves for failing to satisfactorily recognise and address these subjects. To give Burridge his due, he does discuss the syncretistic nature of Christianity, especially that of John’s community: “A social setting is needed in which ideas of traditional Greek philosophy, Platonism and Stoicism, could be coupled at a popular level with those of new cults and sects, including the proto-Gnostics; links are also to be made with the Jewish world of the Old Testament, Rabbinic arguments and the ideas of heterodox or ‘non-conformist’ Judaism. The work of Philo of Alexandria demonstrates that this heady mixture was available at a sophisticated level; however, such a syncretistic culture spread all the way down the social scale and was thus capable of influencing the early Christian communities.” (p.233) Burridge continues: “Finally, it would be strange if the author/editor (s) of the Fourth Gospel did not realize the parallels with Βίοι, given the many other links to Graeco-Roman and Jewish philosophical and religious ideas and literature which are found in John.” (p.254) This kind of language may shock the more conservative biblical scholar whom prefers to see the gospels as a unique gift from God but Burridge, as a liberal scholar of the classics as well as the New Testament, recognises the context within which the gospels were produced, namely the Graeco-Roman literary milieu of the 1st century eastern Mediterranean. Burridge states that a link between the gospels and Hellenistic literary culture “...is demanded both by the generic features of the texts themselves and also by the social setting of early Christianity within the eastern Roman empire of the first century AD.” (p.255) But there is no deeper consideration of the implications of this realization for the nature of the gospel stories. This, from my perspective at least, was the elephant in the room throughout the course of the entire book and it is largely ignored in the concluding chapter. Perhaps Burridge does not see these problems or, alternatively, simply does not regard them as either problematic or even interesting. Whatever the case may be, he does not directly address these questions. Or so it would seem. At the very end of the book Burridge, in considering the hermeneutical implications, dons his religious hat: ‘If the gospels are indeed Βίοι then this demonstrates that the early church was interested in the life and teachings of Christ and this, in turn, should spur today’s evangelicals to re-focus on the same.’ Is this it? In fact, it is not. Mingled in with this religious instruction are a few fleeting lines which betray what is really at the back of Burridge’s mind in his concluding chapter. He cites Kysar’s argument that if Jesus did not appear in the flesh then why did the evangelists depict him as having done so? Why Burridge would conclude an otherwise intelligent and scholarly work, which largely succeeds in arguing that the gospels do in fact share many parallels with Graeco-Roman Βίοι, with such a bone-headed and defensive apologetic remark is beyond me. There can be little doubt that the evangelists, or at least the editors of their work as it has come down to us, thought that Jesus waked and talked; they had faith that he had appeared in the flesh and so they wrote the narrative of his life, perhaps as a direct polemical response to doubters, Docetists or Gnostics. Burridge himself identifies the many similarities that the gospels share with polemical and didactic works of Graeco-Roman Βίοι: “... we have seen that a major purpose and function of βίοι is in a context of didactic or philosophical polemic and conflict.” (p.80) But Burridge (rather predictably for a Christian academic) seems reluctant to discuss the consequent reliability of the gospel material as works which incorporate apology and polemic. That Burridge has something more serious at the back of his mind here is made even more apparent by his insistence on the historical reliability of the gospel stories. Despite each gospel’s unique portrayal of Christ, something long recognised and celebrated by Christians as a variety of interpretations rather than as a mass of contradictions, they must nonetheless have a historically reliable kernel of truth: “...because this is a Life of an historical person written within the lifetime of his contemporaries, there are limits on free composition...” Kingsbury uses the phrase ‘variety with limits’ and Burridge is very keen to emphasise the ancient pedigree of the gospels by equating the evangelists to the early church. Whatever the age of the gospels, they are ultimately second or third generation post-Paul Christian texts. After having demonstrated the commonalities the gospels share with other works of literature whose historical nature is often dubious, as noted by Plutarch himself, Burridge clearly struggles to reconcile this insight with his faith. Even if we assume that Christ walked and talked in early 1st century Palestine, a fact not as apparent in the earlier Christian texts as it becomes in the gospels, a great deal of literary invention (especially for a man as ill-attested as Jesus) would not be impossible. Certainly, Plutarch would have been constrained in what he could say of infamous statesmen such as Mark Antony or Cato, but the same does not apply to an obscure Jewish preacher from Galilee, of whom there are no sources either non-Christian or even Christian contemporary to his supposed lifetime.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Spencer

    Burridge effectively makes the case that the proper genre of the Gospels is ancient, Greco-Roman βίοι. The views of the last centuries supposed Gospels were some kind of new literature sui generis composed of various forms (sayings, myths, etc). Burridge shows that the content, structure, and form of the Gospels demonstrates that it is instead a type of biography — albeit one with theological interest — intended to communicate to an audience about the subject (Jesus Christ) for various purposes. Burridge effectively makes the case that the proper genre of the Gospels is ancient, Greco-Roman βίοι. The views of the last centuries supposed Gospels were some kind of new literature sui generis composed of various forms (sayings, myths, etc). Burridge shows that the content, structure, and form of the Gospels demonstrates that it is instead a type of biography — albeit one with theological interest — intended to communicate to an audience about the subject (Jesus Christ) for various purposes. Burridge's taxonomy of βίοι/Gospels is quite effective and provides a good model for analyzing literature in general. Any attempts to negate his findings will need to be able to create an alternative literature taxonomy.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Laura Robinson

    This is a really helpful book but very confusingly organized. Author seems to repeatedly retread the same material in different chapters or return to the same themes over and over instead of dealing with them all at once - particularly in the first half of the book. The thesis is convincingly argued and engagement with classical sources is solid.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Brian LePort

    Solid argument for the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John being part of the Greco-Roman genre "bios". Burridge does his homework. He examines a wide-variety if bioi, examining their characteristics, deriving statistics such as commonality of a name, or the name of a person as the subject (nominative). Once he has provided a good picture of bioi in the ancient world he juxtaposes the characteristics of the canonical gospels and finds that they share enough similarities to be considered bioi Solid argument for the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John being part of the Greco-Roman genre "bios". Burridge does his homework. He examines a wide-variety if bioi, examining their characteristics, deriving statistics such as commonality of a name, or the name of a person as the subject (nominative). Once he has provided a good picture of bioi in the ancient world he juxtaposes the characteristics of the canonical gospels and finds that they share enough similarities to be considered bioi as well. I know that there has been some push back recently on Burridge's conclusions, though i haven't had the opportunity to read much about those challenges. But this goes to show Burridge's work has provoked others to visit the subject.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Chad Gibbons

    The standard, go-to text for examining the genre of 'the gospels'. There has been so much ink spilled on the topic, it's almost embarrassing that the final answer is the obvious one: They are biographies. Burridge shows that they all fall into the category of Graeco-Roman Biographies, a common form of the time. I think that perhaps the jury might still be out on 'Luke' however, only because of his follow-up, 'Acts'. Since this book was first written, there have been convincing arguments that that The standard, go-to text for examining the genre of 'the gospels'. There has been so much ink spilled on the topic, it's almost embarrassing that the final answer is the obvious one: They are biographies. Burridge shows that they all fall into the category of Graeco-Roman Biographies, a common form of the time. I think that perhaps the jury might still be out on 'Luke' however, only because of his follow-up, 'Acts'. Since this book was first written, there have been convincing arguments that that particular gospel falls more under the category of 'History', rather than 'Biography'.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Timothy Smith

  7. 5 out of 5

    HughDeLong

  8. 4 out of 5

    Timothy Peace

  9. 5 out of 5

    Matt Lawrence

  10. 4 out of 5

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  14. 4 out of 5

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  15. 5 out of 5

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  40. 4 out of 5

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  41. 5 out of 5

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