What Are The Gospels?
(A Review by John Davies)
A Lecture given by the Revd. Canon Professor Richard A. Burridge, Dean of King’s College London, to Lincoln Theological Society on 17th October, 2016.
Professor Burridge began by summarising some nineteenth – and early twentieth-century answers to his question, particularly those of Karl Ludwig Schmidt and Rudolph Bultmann, who concluded that the gospels are unique in form and are not in any sense biographies but in the main collections of sayings and brief narrative elements. This led to a fragmenting approach which failed to consider a gospel as a complete whole. Burridge, by contrast, came to believe that ‘the gospels are a form of Graeco-Roman biography.’ (This is actually a quotation from Professor Burridge’s book, What Are the Gospels? 2nd edition, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2004, p.258, but it neatly encapsulates his thesis.)
Thus, when Burridge began his work, the common-sense view of the gospels as life-stories was far from obvious to experts and seemed to have been discredited. For him perhaps the key word was ‘Graeco-Roman’. Modern readers expect modern biographies to be verbally and factually exact and accurate. Often the subject is still alive and likely to object to what s/he considers inaccurate or misleading. In all ancient ‘lives’, vitae or bioi, the protagonist has died, even if, uniquely, he has risen from the dead. Readers today sometimes do not bear in mind that even modern biographies are interpretations, and expect a kind of documentary rectitude. In ancient biographies, Burridge told us, characters say the sort of thing they would have said, and there is comparatively little interest in psychological motivation. What ancient biographers, including the four evangelists, found important was the public life – the words and actions of the protagonist – not what they had for tea or who their childhood friends were. (I sometimes think that modern biographers may be more influenced by novels than they realise.) One further important difference between the gospels and modern biography is that the ancient writings were read aloud. They were heard, not perused silently.
The four gospels, Burridge told us, give four portraits of Jesus. They are about Him, not about early church beliefs or communities. Burridge made use of the traditional emblems from Ezekiel and Revelation – human face (Matthew), lion (Mark), ox (Luke) and eagle (John), but applied these, not to the authors but to Jesus Himself. Mark’s Jesus is swift and disconcerting, a lion. Matthew’s suggests the royal humanity of the Jewish Messiah. Luke’s ox bears the burdens of others and cares for the powerless, the vulnerable and the outsider. John’s Jesus is the eagle, swooping and soaring between the Father and the world He came to save. Yet clearly these are four books about the same man. Each can be read separately or compared with the others.
Professor Burridge was lively, lucid and well organised. He is a genial and highly professional lecturer, using hand-outs and power point, including photographs, diagrams and computer-generated statistical evidence. He is a classicist as well as a biblical scholar and has a strong sense of genre informed by recent literary theory. He has moved the idea of gospel-as-biography from the margins to the centre of New Testament criticism and study.
His lecture was in part the biography of his research. Like an ancient biography it centred on his public life, his academic journey, as messenger of the news that each gospel is the story, the picture, of Jesus the Son of God and Saviour of humankind, and that these portraits are to be trusted. One of his images showed Professor Burridge receiving the Ratzinger Prize from Pope Francis, the first non-Catholic to do so. Perhaps we needed to see this in order to register Burridge’s achievement. He has shown us that the gospels are trustworthy in their own terms and that, in revealing Christ’s life, they can profoundly affect our own.
John C. Davies