“To the gospels as a whole there is no known parallel or analogy.” So wrote Harold Riesenfeld, drawing attention to a commonplace of scholarship, but one whose significance is not always kept in mind. The evangelists evolved a completely new literary form. Why?

They did not write biographies. Biographies of great men are known from antiquity, but this is not the form of the Gospels. They omit too much for that to be true. There is no personal description of Jesus. Very little is said about his early years and nothing at all about the formative influences to which he was subjected. Even when we come to the time of his public ministry, the only period of Jesus’ life for which there is anything like complete information, there are huge gaps. Long ago F. C. Burkitt pointed out that at a minimum Jesus’ ministry must have lasted for four hundred days (it may have been much more) and we have information about what happened on perhaps forty. His teaching as it is recorded in the Gospels could all have been delivered in about six hours. T. W. Manson maintained that Jesus lived for thirty to forty years but about twenty-eight of them we know nothing at all. He held that we cannot fix with certainty one single chronological point in Jesus’ life.

Probably the best description of the Gospels is “passion narratives with long introductions.” Basically they are books about Jesus’ death on the cross and its associated events. They contain also a certain amount of introduction in which we learn important things about Jesus’ life and teaching.

None of them claims the title “Gospel.” Indeed, not until the end of the second century was this word used as a book title. Previously, ...

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