Petersen, Norman R. "Can One Speak of a Gospel Genre?" Neotestamentica 28:3 (1994), 137-158.
While scholars such as Willem Vorster, in whose memory this special edition of Neotestamentica was prepared, would assert that a Gospel is a subgenre of narrative and is akin to the ancient biography, Petersen argues that there is not enough similarity among the canonical Gospels to classify them as one particular genre (Petersen 1994, 137-138). The category and appellation of the titles assigned to the canonical Gospels appears in the later second century and, in Petersen's view, is an ecclesiastical category rather than a distinct literary category. Further, some of the non-canonical works referred to as "gospel" fit more clearly into other genres (Petersen 1994, 139). This strongly suggests not a literary genre but a classification of the content. A possibly productive means of analysis is to consider the works in terms of literary of historical criticism so as to identify factors which they may have in common other than the presence of one main character, thus leaving them as biography.
Petersen further questions whether the Gospels actually fit into the subcategory of narrative which we consider to be biography (Petersen 1994, 140). Matthew is often considered to be more akin to a church manual than to a biography (Petersen 1994, 141). In it, the author uses the narrative to strengthen the argument for the authoritative teaching of God's commands, according to Petersen. Luke, then, appears to Petersen more as the first volume of a history in two parts, setting the stage for Acts to tell about "a new people of God" (Petersen 1994, 141). Mark and John, though they may have drawn on different sources, bear similarities which Petersen ascribes to a dependence on early Christian preaching, leading to creation of a narrative account of events (Petersen 1994, 142). The different Gospels, then, do not have substantial agreement of form which he would expect to indicate a genre.
Petersen acknowledges that numerous scholars have seen particularly Matthew, Mark, and John as fitting the category of biography, but in accord with the conception of an earlier time which did not expect a very comprehensive flow of character development (Petersen 1994, 143).
Considering Mark and John to be biographies raises a number of questions, particularly those of the actual nature of literary or historical criticism and the significance of genre to hermeneutics (Petersen 1994, 145). Petersen considers the work of E.D. Hirsch on literary genre to be important in this regard. Hirsch "saw that the genre of the whole informed the composition of the parts into a textual whole" (Petersen 1994, 145). This redefined genre to serve as a part of a cultural code, therefore to have a great deal of importance in the way a culture would understand communication. In Petersen's analysis, Voorster allowed for too broad a defintion of "gospel" which eroded the specificity of its meaning and thus robbed it of the ability to clearly define how the term should be understood (Petersen 1994, 146).
Petersen goes on to summarize arguments he has made elsewhere about the content of the canonical gospels, which illustrate the substantial differences, indicating a lack of generic unity (Petersen 1994, 147-149).
Vorster made a differentiation between "genre" and "text type" which Petersen explores in some detail, as the distinction is not naturally clear (Petersen 1994, 149). Though the terms may appear synonymous, Petersen evaluates their usage to seek shades of difference in meaning. Both Todorov and Ben Amos suggest that genre describes structure found inductively while text type refers to deductive elements of literary analysis (Petersen 1994, 150). The genre is specific to a culture while the type is universal in nature. Types of plot, then, would easily cross from genre to genre, as we may observe in the different writings called gospels (Petersen 1994, 151). Furthermore, while the plot type could be used in a variety of genres, plot elements can do so as well. Petersen considers Mark and John to have different plot types even though they have elements in common (Petersen 1994, 152). He considers this to be a fairly common feature in various forms of folk tale or even in Homer. As an example he describes stories involving concealment and recognition. The type of plot being used has a profound impact on the way an author would expect the work to be understood (Petersen 1994, 155). Petersen concludes that this is the proper interpretive key.