Over the last three decades, a quiet revolution has taken place in Gospel scholarship. Its first tremors were felt at my alma mater, the University of Nottingham, in the 1980s, when an ambitious doctoral student by the name of Richard Burridge turned up, ready to show that the Gospels were not biographies. Equipped for the first time with computer software for textual analysis (remember: this was the 80s…) and a first in Classics from Oxford, Burridge seemed to be in a good position to prove his thesis. He gathered a collection of ten ancient ‘lives’ (Greek bíoi; Latin: vitae) and ran their features through his software, comparing them with the Gospels.
Yet what Burridge found took him by surprise. Far from being different to ancient ‘lives’, the Gospels fitted the genre well – and the data from his analysis seemed to prove it.  Just like the Gospels, ancient lives were texts which revealed the character (ethos) of an individual through a careful selection of their words and deeds. They had a strong ethical component, encouraging their audiences to imitate the subject’s virtues (or avoid their vices!). They also paid significant attention to their subject’s death, believing that one’s death was the greatest testimony to a life well lived. And all of this could fit on a single scroll.
Of course, there are important differences between the Gospels and ancient biographies. For a start, the Gospels are charged with a Jewish and apocalyptic flavour which is missing from their Graeco-Roman counterparts. The story of Jesus thereby slots into a wider ‘salvation history’ in a way that Graeco-Roman lives do not. The Gospels also seem less concerned to tell us some of the secondary details of Jesus’ life, such as his education or appearance – more on which below. As many scholars have stressed, however, “adaptation in biography was the norm.”  There was not one single way to write an ancient bios, and the Gospel writers simply represent one (very Jewish) way of engaging the genre.
Burridge’s thesis did enough to bankrupt the previously accepted model that the Gospels were sui generis, a totally unique genre. Yet the revolution has been a quiet one. Although the majority of scholars and many lay people have come to realise the Gospels are biographies, understanding their genre has yet to revolutionise our interpretation of these texts.  In short, we have yet to consider the hermeneutical payoff of calling a Gospel a ‘biography.’ Part of the reason for this relates to the diversity of biographical writing alluded to above. If there were many ways to write a life, and many reasons for doing so, then it seems that understanding the Gospels’ genre would not throw much light on their meaning or purpose. The Gospels are bíoi – so what?
In the last decade, however, Gospel scholars have begun to consider this ‘so what?’ question. A recent monograph, The First Biography of Jesus, by my supervisor, Helen Bond, is a landmark in research on the hermeneutical implications of reading the Gospels as lives, providing a complete reading of Mark’s Gospel alongside other bíoi. 
In the rest of this blog, I want to pull three insights from Bond and others’ work, which help us understand how reading the Gospels as bíoi illuminates their interpretation.
1. It really is all about Jesus
The first way to read the Gospels as bíoi is to recognise them as texts about Jesus.
If this strikes you as blindingly obvious, you would be right. But, as George Orwell once said, at certain moments, ‘the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men [and women].’ The mid-twentieth century in Gospel scholarship was arguably one of those moments, as scholars had come to consider the Gospels as about almost anything but Jesus.
Gospel scholars of the period often imagined that the Gospels told us as much about the Gospel writers and their Churches as about Jesus himself. Behind each Gospel was a hypothetical ‘community,’ whose own history could be re-constructed from the Gospels themselves. This castle-in-the-sky project reached its most lofty heights with respect to the fourth Gospel, when even careful and brilliant scholars like Raymond Brown attempted to plot the history of its community behind the text. 
To be clear, I don’t wish to deny that the evangelists were influenced by their contemporary contexts, nor do I wish to imply that the Gospel traditions haven’t been shaped by the concerns of the Church. However, I want to highlight how odd it is to read an ancient life as a coded story of the life of a community, rather than about its subject. To tell a veiled story about the authors themselves was not the purpose of ancient biographies, and this should give us all pause when reading these biographies (of Christ) as veiled autobiographies (of the Church). When we begin asking what each Gospel says about a specific Christian community, rather than the character of Jesus, we find ourselves on rocky ground.
Scholars have also been tempted to read the Gospels as much about the secondary characters as about Jesus himself. Equipped with the toolkit of narrative criticism and borrowing from literary theory, scholars have subjected the characters in the Gospels – the crowds, scribes, pharisees, sadducees, disciples and other minor characters – to great critical scrutiny and have thrown much light on their characterisation. In Markan studies, particular attention is often paid to the disciples, and their repeated misapprehension of Jesus.
With the focus on these secondary characters, we find in these characters a lesson about ourselves: we are like the disciples, who continually misunderstand our Lord and fail to grasp his difficult message. When we read the Gospels as ancient biographies, however, our attention is flipped from ourselves onto Christ – the main purpose and subject of the life. Rather than saying, we are like the disciples, the emphasis is on the character of Jesus, and his depiction as someone who is easy to misunderstand and difficult to follow. 
When we read the Gospels as ancient biographies, however, our attention is flipped from ourselves onto Christ – the main purpose and subject of the life.-John Nelson
Yet it is not only scholars, equipped with tools like source or narrative-criticism, who are tempted to make the Gospel biographies of Jesus about something other than Jesus. In a bible study context, it is a common exercise to psychologise the Gospel narratives and get into the heads of the characters. We consider how we would feel if we were in that situation and reflect on how we would respond to Jesus in the disciples’ position. Whilst this ‘reader response’ method of interpretation is intuitive to us as introspective Westerners (and has its value), these are not the kinds of questions ancient readers would ask of an ancient life.
One of the key differences between ancient and modern biographies is the lack of attention the former pays to psychology. Have you ever noticed that it is very difficult to tell Jesus’ personality – his ‘Big Five’– from the Gospels? This is no mistake. Like other ancient biographers, the evangelists were not so much interested in Jesus’ psychology as his character (ethos). When we try to get into the ‘heads’ of the Gospel characters, we are asking about what they would feel. Yet ancient readers were always drawn back the question back to who Jesus is, and what he is like. Their attention was on the character of Christ.
2. A different kind of Life
Another way of reading the Gospels as bioi is to explore how they subvert the genre.
Scholars often describe genre as a ‘contract’ between a writer and their audience – a set of conventions and expectations which guide our interpretation. When a story begins, ‘Once upon a time,’ we know immediately that we are in the realm of fairy tale. Occasionally, however, a writer will flout some (unspoken) rule of the contract and subvert our expectations. This creates new surprising meanings as our expectations are dashed.
The recent Bond film is a good example of where are our expectations of Bond are subverted, time and again. The ‘Bond’ we’ve grown accustomed to through the franchises’ history is emotionally unavailable, shaken not stirred, with a license to kill. But – spoiler alert! – in No Time to Die, we find a different Bond. A Bond who talks openly about his trust issues and begins to take responsibility for a family, even at great cost to his own life – a more ‘conservative’ Bond, if you like. We expect one form of hero but are given another.
One of the great delights of reading the Gospels alongside other ancient ‘lives’ is being able to see where they subvert ancient expectations of what makes a ‘good’ hero. To illustrate this with an aspect of my own research: biographies have a very clear idea about what an ancient hero should look like. Divine figures and kings receive glowing descriptions in biographies written around the time of the Gospels. We can see from them what early readers would expect Jesus to look like: he should be great and handsome like Moses, beautiful like David, or have bright eyes and a strong bearing like other pagan ‘Sons of God.’ 
The Gospels, however, fall eerily silent on the point of Jesus’ appearance. Apparently, the evangelists didn’t seem to think that their hero needed to be divinely beautiful or have the stature of a King, and this speaks greatly to what they value.
To return to James Bond for a moment, the ‘old’ Bond embodies so many of the things that our world values – intelligence, fitness, a chiselled jawline(!) – and is subverted by a different Bond who stands for traditional values – love, family and sacrifice. In a similar way, the Gospels as biographies embody a subversive ‘value structure’ in their presentation of Jesus as a different kind of hero.  Rather than depicting a stereotypical king or divine man, the Gospels show us another kind of life. This is perhaps nowhere clearer than in his gruesome, sacrificial death. Whilst other biographies take care to show how their heroes died a noble death, the Gospels are not ashamed of the humiliating death Jesus undertook for our sake.
3. Imitating Christ
Finally, reading the Gospels as lives invites us to read them with an eye to imitating Christ.
I mentioned above that ancient bíoi had a strongly ethical component. They were written, in part, because a great man had lived a life which was worthy of remembrance and imitation. In the epilogue of the life written about his father-in-law Agricola, Tacitus notes his preference for a written memorial over statues, because it is through his Life that others can see the character of Agricola’s life, and imitate the beauty of his soul.
Although the Gospels are, in many ways, about the things Jesus has done for us, they must also be read as offering us an exemplar in his person. Whilst only Jesus could die his kind of death, he teaches his disciples to take up their cross and follow him, living out the values of the Kingdom. In devoting so much of their space to Jesus’ teaching, several scholars have pointed out that the Gospels most closely resemble the lives of philosophers.
But what does this mean – to ‘imitate’ Christ? When seen through the lens of biography, it cannot mean that we simply do all the things that Jesus did. The evangelical slogan, ‘What would Jesus do?’ would not occur to a reader of the Gospels as biographies, any more than the question ‘What would Agricola do?’ would occur to Tacitus.
The important ethical point was not imitation of the subject’s exact actions, but imitation of the virtues the subject embodied.  When a Roman reader picked up Tacitus’ Agricola, would not expect to play a similarly pivotal role in the conquest of Britain, the great achievement of his life. Tacitus did not write so that his readers could all be like Agricola in the particulars of their lives, but so that they could imitate the beauty of his soul in their own contexts. The same applies to the Gospels: we may not be able to die a sacrificial death, or multiply loaves and fishes, but we can seek to embody the abundant generosity and caritas expressed in these actions. With an eye to the Gospels as lives, Christian readers will ask how to live the character of Christ in their own contemporary settings.
Keeping the Main Thing, The Main Thing
To read a ‘Life of Jesus’ – a Gospel – is to fix our eyes on the subject of the life, Jesus himself, to pay attention especially to his character, and to consider imitating him in our own varied contexts. It is to make the Gospels less about us or the Church at large, and more about the subject of the life. And for the historians among us, it presents a further question: how does this life subvert early readers’ expectations of what an ancient hero should be like? When we begin to ask these questions, we will have begun to read the Gospels as ancient lives.
Richard A. Burridge, What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992 (1st ed; 3rd ed. Baylor University Press, 2020).
Michael F Bird, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014.
Craig S. Keener, Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019.
Helen K. Bond, The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020.