Why the Gospels Aren’t Like Steve Jobs’ Biography: Part 1

Wade —  July 10, 2013 —  Comments

Steve Jobs2

Last year, I raced through Walter Isaacson’s incredibly popular (and creatively titled) biography on Steve Jobs. I loved it. From Jobs’ early life to the creation of the iPod and iPad, Isaacson meticulously follows the eccentric innovator from obscurity to immeasurable fame. It wasn’t long after I finished the book that I started thinking about just how different Steve Jobs is from the biographies we study about Jesus.

Traditionally, Christians get their information about Jesus’ life from the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. What perplexes and confuses many, is how different in style, length, and organization these ancient biographies are to modern works like Steve Jobs or John Adams. This confusion even causes some to doubt the truthfulness of the gospels, arguing that they are inconclusive and even contradict each other at times. For many, this might even call into question Christianity as a whole.

Should the gospels worry followers of Christ? If the original authors were attempting to tell the story of Jesus’ life and ministry, why didn’t it turn out more like Steve Jobs’ biography? Why are they so different?

If we are going to answer these questions, we first have to understand that the gospels are, in a sense, a product of their time. If they were written today, they might have come out looking a little different. But they weren’t. The gospels have more in common with ancient Hellenistic (Greek) biographies than they do with Steve Jobs. We wouldn’t dismiss Shakespeare because he wrote plays instead of films. We shouldn’t easily throw out the gospels just because they don’t reflect the modern conventions of our day.

Here are three characteristics of ancient biographies that will help us understand why the gospels look the way they do. Tomorrow, in part two of this blog, I’ll discuss how the authors arranged their information differently than most modern biographical writers do today.

Ancient biographies were often short, so they could be read aloud

In the first century, paper didn’t grow on trees like it does today. Writing materials were harder to find, not to mention people literate enough to read those writing materials. Meaning, ancient biographies were “short” in our sense of the word. A 500+ page book like Jobs, would never have cut it in first-century Jewish culture. Longer works that did exist were generally reserved for academic circles. The big reason Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are shorter than our average biographies is so they could be read aloud when believers met together. Contrast that to the unabridged audio version of Steve Jobs, which clocks in at about 25 hours. Try listening to a sermon for that long in your church this Sunday.

Ancients biographies often associated how someone died with their moral character

Have you ever wondered why the last week of Jesus’ life takes up a large chunk (20-30%) of the gospels? Why spend so much time talking about his death? While modern biographies usually detail the final few days of their subject’s lives, it probably doesn’t make up a third of the book. Ancient Hellenistic biographers tended to focus on a person’s death because they believed that how an individual died revealed who that individual really was.

By spending a long period of time on the last week of Jesus’ life, the gospel writers were using the conventions of their culture to reveal the central event in all of Christianity. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How Jesus died tells us who he was and what he came to do.

Ancient biographies weren’t generally interested in how a person looked

“He learned to stare at people without blinking, and he perfected long silences punctuated by staccato bursts of fast-talking. This odd mix of intensity and aloofness, combined with his shoulder-length hair and scraggly beard, gave him the aura of a crazed shaman.”

This is a description you’d expect to find about Jesus in the gospels. What’s funny is it’s actually a piece on Steve Jobs from Isaacson’s biography (31).

Our world is full of different kinds of Jesus’. You’ve got Fabio Jesus, Samurai Jesus, Buddy Jesus, and even African-American Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John would have made things much easier if they had at least told us Jesus’ hair color. The reason the Gospel writers didn’t describe their Lord’s flowing locks though, is because this wasn’t the norm in their day. Hellenistic biographies were more concerned with what a person said or did, rather than what they looked like. Ancient cultures also didn’t obsess as much with outward appearance as we do today. Usually, when a description of an individual is given in Hellenistic biographies, it’s because that person’s appearance somehow contributed to the story.

That’s why we don’t know the color of Jesus’ hair or eyes. I like to think he had a mustache though. Yeah, a stand-alone ‘stache. Not a creepy one, but a cool one.

When we compare the gospels to Steve Jobs, we’re left with two very different works. It’s because of this that it can be tempting for our modern society to dismiss what is unique as inferior. To truly understand the gospels, we must learn to view them first as a product of their time period and then bridge the gap to understand what they mean for us now. They might be shorter, oddly constructed, and unimaginative by today’s standard, but that’s the problem. We are judging them by today’s standard.

Check back in tomorrow for Part 2 of this blog, where I’ll discuss how viewing the gospels in their context can help us understand why they seem to contradict each other at times.

What are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography by Richard A. Burridge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; 2 edition (2004).
Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by William W. Klein, Craig L. Blombert, and Robert I. Hubbard Jr., Thomas Nelson; Revised & Updated (2004) edition.

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