Perhaps the four best-known writings in the New Testament, and certainly the most influential literary portraits of Jesus across the history of Christianity, are the four canonical Gospels. Though the contents of all New Testament writings are heavily shaped by beliefs about Jesus and the consequences of faith in him for personal and collective life, each canonical Gospel is entirely concerned with presenting a narrative account of Jesus. Thus, among the New Testament writings, these four are "Jesusbooks" in a particular sense and represent a distinctive kind of early Christian literary work.1
I offer the expression "Jesus books" for writings that are more characteristically referred to as "Gospels." Among scholars, the term "gospel" has been disputed in recent decades.2 There is no agreement on when the term first began to be applied to writings, though most think that it probably became a label sometime in the second century. The familiar titles of the four canonical Gospels (e.g., "The Gospel according to Matthew") were attached at some point after these writings began to circulate among early Christian groups, but there is disagreement as to exactly when.3 Moreover, scholars do not agree on what the term
1. As I shall note later in this chapter, the canonical Gospels are best seen as an identifi-
ably Christian adaptation of and contribution to the Roman-era literary genre of bios writings.
But in comparison with other known first-century Christian writings, the Gospels are a distinc-
2. Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (Philadel-
phia: Trinity Press International, 1990), is the most wide-ranging and detailed discussion,
though his views on a number of issues are very debatable.
3. Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (London: SCM
Press; Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2000), vigorously asserts positions on a num-
ber of related issues.