Are the four Gospels biographies of Jesus? At one level, this can be answered by New Testament scholars who study the genre of biographical writing in the first century. But there is also a linguistic answer to this question—and linguistically, all four Gospels are most definitely biographies.
The English word ‘biography’ appears to have been coined by the poet Dryden in 1683. But in coining it, he was drawing on earlier sources: ‘biographist’ had appeared 20 years earlier, and that in turn was drawing on words found in medieval Greek and Late Latin. ‘Biography’ is coined, as you know, from two Greek roots meaning ‘life’ and ‘writing’. So the Macquarie defines a ‘biography’ as “a written account of a person’s life”.
But why should biographies only refer to the life experiences and events of a person or persons? Why can it not refer to ‘life’ in a larger sense? Lexicographically, there’s absolutely no reason why not. So a book that writes about ‘abundant life’ and ‘eternal life’ is most certainly a piece of ‘life writing’, and, as such, should be called a ‘biography’.
This whole question was raised for me by a Briefing reader who coined his own word to label the genre of Gospel writing. His word is ‘mortuography’—literally, ‘death writing’. He explains that the Gospels devote so much of their space to the death of Jesus (a quarter to a third of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) that they should be called ‘mortuographies’ not biographies.
Unfortunately ‘mortuography’ is not a well-formed word, as it’s a Latin stem with a Greek suffix. It also strikes me as a distinctively ugly neologism that is unlikely to catch on. (Try saying it six times quickly; it’s not a word that rolls off the tongue.)
But it also misses the point of the Gospels: they focus on the death of Jesus because his death gives us life. The crucifixion is followed by the resurrection, which is followed in turn by new life (abundant life, eternal life) for all those who follow Jesus.
The story the Gospel writers tell is a story of life, not death—and that makes them (uniquely, among all writers) true biographers—‘life writers’.