From Marvel magazine comics to academic textbooks, today’s literature and literary genre reflects our time and culture. Literary genre familiar to communities millennia ago (aretalogy and Greek tragedies for instance) are all but forgotten. Literary genre commonly consumed by modern culture likely reflects our hyper-virtual technological reality and attention span. Said reality also contributes to literacy rates. According to worldpopulationreview.com, New Hampshire has the highest adult literacy rate in the U.S. (94.2%) with California having the lowest literacy in the nation (76.9%). The National Center for Education Statistics notes that one out of five U.S. adults have low literacy skills, which translates to “about 43.0 million adults.” Despite these statistics, the average American is casually familiar with daily newspapers, weekly tabloids, online blogs, autobiographies, poetry, legal documents, and narrative literature. Additionally, new genre exists in the form of text messaging which captures aspects of broken English, urban colloquialism, shorthand, and slang, which is a type of patois (a kind of dialect also seen in Caribbean and creole linguistics and lingua franca). Such new verbiage pushes the boundaries of linguistical rules and signals the loss of literary genre commonly found in ancient and medieval literature. One such text that preserves unfamiliar literary genre is the Bible. While many faith communities engage the Bible as sacred scripture, aspects of preserved genre are not commonly engaged or written. Examples are Apocalyptic literature, incantation texts, imprecatory psalms, and the gospels for instance. With regard to gospels, while some writings claim this designation, their literary genre is difficult to define.
The term gospel comes from the Greek term euangelion, meaning “good news”. But what are gospels as written material and literary genre? As “good news,” gospels are what is heard or proclaimed. Within the biblical text, gospel refers to the message and good news of Jesus Christ as savior and redeemer of a fallen humanity. This good news proclaims that the incarnate Jesus forgives sin and restores humanity back to God. In light of this message, gospels have been described as historical narratives, sui generis (a genre peculiar to themselves), biographies, or distinct Christian literature, which is to say that it is distinct literature recorded by those who wholly embraced the teachings and acts of Jesus. Yet, there are other ancient texts that proclaim gospel literary status. Such works, while focusing on Jesus, do not chronicle his life or overall message. In light of this, perhaps something can be said of the gospel genre being described as sui generis.
Engaging biblical gospels are to engage literary genre not commonly used in modern culture. The four distinct gospels of the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are also classified as sacred scripture to Christian communities. These writings have similar characteristics from other ancient gospels not found in the Bible. These other gospels can be described as the sayings of Jesus yet without the historical narrative or biographical account of his life and ministry. While exploring the gospels and other lost literary genre may require some effort, doing so will, no doubt, contribute to a rise in literacy statistics. This is an effort worthy of time and effort. In the case of exploring the biblical gospels, this effort is also worthy of spiritual growth.
Jamal-Dominique Hopkins (Ph.D., University of Manchester, U.K.) is Associate Professor of Christian Scriptures and Black Church Studies at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. He is also a Christ and Being Human Pedagogy Fellow with the Yale University Center for Faith and Culture. He is the author of Cultic Spiritualization: Religious Sacrifice in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Gorgias Press, 2022) and can be followed on Twitter and Instagram @phdhopkins.