Gospel literally translated means "good news," deriving from the Old English "god-spell" translated from Greek εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion) used in the New Testament.
In Christianity, a gospel is generally one of four canonical books of the New Testament that describe the miraculous birth, life, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. These books are the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, written between 65 and 100 C.E.
Many modern scholars, for example, Frans Neirynck, argue that the sequence in which the Gospel accounts have traditionally been printed in the Bible is not the order of their composition, and that the first canonical gospel to have been written is Mark (c. 65-70), which in turn was used as a source for the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke may have also used the hypothetical Q source. These first three gospels are called the synoptic gospels because they share a similar view. The last gospel, the gospel of John, presents a very different picture of Jesus and his ministry from the synoptics. The canonical gospels were originally written in Greek.
The gospels are the source of many popular stories, parables, and sermons, such as Jesus' humble birth in Bethlehem, the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, the Last Supper, resurrection accounts, and the Great Commission.
Originally, the "gospel" meant the proclamation of God's saving activity in Jesus of Nazareth, or the agape message proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth. This is the original New Testament usage (for example Mark 1:14-15 or 1 Corinthians 15:1-9). Ancient, non-canonical works that purport to quote Jesus (for example, Gospel of Thomas) are also called gospels, and the term refers in general to works of a genre of Early Christian literature.
Literally, gospel means "good news." The word gospel derives from the Old English "god-spell" or "godspell" or rarely "godspel" (meaning "good tidings" or "good news"), a translation of the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον, euangelion (eu, good, -angelion, message). The Greek word "euangelion" is also the source of the term "evangelist" in English.
Of the many gospels written in antiquity, only four gospels came to be accepted as part of the New Testament, or canonical. An insistence upon a canon of four gospels, and no others, was a central theme of Irenaeus of Lyons, c. 185. In his central work, Adversus Haereses, Irenaeus denounced various early Christian groups that used only one gospel, such as Marcionism, which used only Marcion's version of Luke, or the Ebionites which seem to have used an Aramaic version of Matthew, as well as groups that embraced the texts of newer revelations, such as the Valentinians (A.H. 1.11). Irenaeus declared that the four he espoused were the four Pillars of the Church: "It is not possible that there can be either more or fewer than four," he stated, presenting as logic the analogy of the four corners of the earth and the four winds (3.11.8). His image, taken from Ezekiel 1, of God's throne borne by four creatures with four faces—"the four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: And the four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle"—equivalent to the "four-formed" gospel, is the origin of the conventional symbols of the Evangelists: Lion, bull, eagle, man. Irenaeus was ultimately successful in declaring that the four gospels collectively, and exclusively these four, contained the truth. By reading each gospel in light of the others, Irenaeus made of John a lens through which to read Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
By the turn of the fifth century C.E., the Catholic Church in the west, under Pope Innocent I, recognized a biblical canon including the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which was previously established at a number of regional Synods, namely the Council of Rome (382), the Synod of Hippo (393), and two Synods of Carthage (397 and 419). This canon, which corresponds to the modern Catholic canon, was used in the Vulgate, an early fifth century translation of the Bible made by Jerome under the commission of Pope Damasus I in 382.
- Gospel according to Matthew
- Gospel according to Mark
- Gospel according to Luke
- Gospel according to John
Origin of the canonical Gospels
Among the canonical Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke include many of the same passages in describing the life of Jesus, sometimes using either identical or very similar wording. John expresses itself in a different style, recounting many episodes not contained in the other three gospels. When it does relate the same incidents, it often does in a different way—even in a revised narrative order. It also addresses more encompassing theological and Greek philosophical concerns than the first three canonical Gospel accounts. It is John, for example, that explicitly introduces Jesus as the incarnation of God.
Parallels among the first three Gospel accounts are so telling that many scholars have investigated the relationship between them. In order to study them more closely, German scholar J.J. Griesbach (1776) arranged the first three Gospel accounts in a three-column table called a synopsis. As a result, Matthew, Mark, and Luke have come to be known as the synoptic Gospels; and the question of the reason for this similarity, and the relationship between these Gospel accounts more generally, is known as the Synoptic Problem. One traditional explanation argues that the gospels were "spirit-breathed," that is, that the Holy Spirit provided inspiration for every book in the Bible, and that consequently the similarities in the different accounts are due to having the same author—God. It has also been argued by certain Christian groups that since the Synoptics all tell the story of the life of Jesus, that they would naturally be similar in their accounts, though their critics argue that this explanation would then imply that the Gospel of John isn't an account of the life of Jesus, since it is quite dissimilar in the accounts. Scholars have noted that the similarities are far too identical to be independent accounts, as if three people reporting the same event, used exactly the same cultural references, turns of phrase, ordering of content, and on occasion even the same set of words. Thus, scholars have argued direct influence; the writers of the later texts using the first text as the basis for their own works. The Synoptic problem is to identify which text had priority and which ones came after.
The assumption found among early Christian writers and scholars has been that the first account of the Gospel to be committed to writing was that according to Matthew, the second Luke, followed by Mark and the final one John; and this order is defended today by proponents of the Griesbach hypothesis. However, since then Enlightenment, scholars have been proposing other solutions to the Synoptic Problem; the dominant view today is what is known as the "Two-Source Hypothesis." This hypothesis is based on two observations.
The first is that Mark is shorter than the other two synoptic gospels, with a short treatment of Jesus' life and ministry and a longer account of the Passion. Scholars reasoned that is was more likely that Mark is the first Gospel, with Matthew and Luke expanding it, rather than Mark abbreviating Matthew's more extensive version. The second is that both Matthew and Luke contain either identical or very similar passages that are not found in Mark. The two source hypothesis suggests that this similarity is due to a mutual borrowing of passages not only from Mark but from one other common source, lost to history, termed by scholars "Q" (from German: Quelle, meaning "source").
This view was bolstered by the rediscovery of the Gospel of Thomas, a sayings gospel remarkably similar to the form that Q was thought to take, and containing many of the sayings shared only between Matthew and Luke (and not Mark), but in a more raw form. Conservative Christian scholars argue that since the Gospel of Thomas is thought to be a later document than the synoptics, Thomas could have copied from them, although this requires that Thomas made the effort of removing all the narrative framework, and carefully picked out sayings shared between Matthew and Luke, and added others from an unknown source elsewhere.
Another variation of the two-source hypothesis is the Farrer hypothesis. This theory maintains Markan priority (that Mark was written first) while dispensing with the need for a theoretical document, Q. Austin Farrer simply argues that Luke used Matthew as a source as well as Mark, explaining the similarities between them without having to refer to a hypothetical document.
The general consensus among biblical scholars is that all four canonical Gospels were originally written in Greek, the lingua franca of the Roman Orient. On the strength of an early commentator it has been suggested that Matthew may have originally been written in Aramaic, or the Hebrew, or that it was translated from Aramaic/Hebrew to Greek with corrections based on Mark. Regardless, no Aramaic original texts of the Gospel accounts have ever been found, only later translations from the Greek
Estimates for the dates when the canonical Gospel accounts were written vary significantly; physical evidence for any of the dates is scant. Because the earliest surviving complete copies of the Gospels date to the fourth century C.E. and because only fragments and quotations exist before that, scholars use higher criticism to propose likely ranges of dates for the original gospel autographs. Conservative scholars who view the gospels as eyewitness accounts tend to date earlier than others, while liberal scholars usually date later. The following are mostly the date ranges given by the late Raymond E. Brown, in his book An Introduction to the New Testament, as representing the general scholarly consensus in 1996:
- Mark: c. 68–73
- Matthew: c. 70–100 as the majority view; some conservative scholars argue for a pre-70 date, particularly those that do not accept Mark as the first gospel written.
- Luke: c. 80–100, with most arguing for somewhere around 85
- John: c. 90–110. Brown does not give a consensus view for John, but these are dates as propounded by C.K. Barrett, among others. The majority view is that it was written in stages, so there was no one date of composition.
- Mark: c. 50s to early 60s, or late 60s
- Matthew: c. 50 to 70s
- Luke: c. 59 to 63, or 70s to 80s
- John: c. 85 to near 100, or 50s to 70
In addition to the four canonical gospels there have been other gospels that were not accepted into the canon. Generally these were not accepted due to doubt over the authorship, the time frame between the original writing and the events described, or content that was at odds with the prevailing orthodoxy. For this reason, most of these non-canonical texts were only ever accepted by small portions of the early Christian community. Some of the content of these non-canonical gospels (as much as it deviates from accepted theological norms) is considered heretical by the leadership of mainstream denominations, including the Vatican. This can be seen in the case of the Gospel of Peter, which was written during the time period of the other canonical gospels, 70 C.E.-120 C.E., but was considered dangerous for elements which could be used to support docetism.
Two non-canonical gospels that are considered to be among the earliest in composition are the sayings Gospel of Thomas and the narrative Gospel of Peter. The dating of the Gospel of Thomas is particularly controversial, as there is some suspicion in critical schools of scholarship that it predates the canonical Gospels, which would, if conclusively proven, have a profound impact on the understanding of their origin. Like the canonical gospels, scholars have to rely on higher criticism, not extant manuscripts, in order to roughly date Thomas.
A genre of "Infancy gospels" (Greek: protoevangelion) arose in the second century, such as the Gospel of James, which introduces the concept of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the absolutely different sayings, Gospel of Thomas), both of which related many miraculous incidents from the life of Mary and the childhood of Jesus that are not included in the canonical gospels, but which have passed into Christian lore.
Another genre that has been suppressed is that of gospel harmonies, in which the apparent discrepancies in the canonical four gospels were selectively recast to present a harmoniously consistent narrative text. Very few fragments of harmonies survived. The Diatessaron was such a harmonization, compiled by Tatian around 175 C.E. It was popular for at least two centuries in Syria, but eventually it fell into disuse, and no copies of it have survived, except indirectly in some medieval Gospel harmonies that can be considered its descendants.
Marcion of Sinope, c. 150 C.E., had a version of the Gospel of Luke which differed substantially from that which has now become the standard text. Marcion's version was far less Jewish than the now canonical text, and his critics alleged that he had edited out the portions he didn't like from the canonical version, though Marcion argued that his text was the more genuinely original one. Marcion also rejected all the other gospels, including Matthew, Mark and especially John, which he alleged had been forged by Irenaeus.
The existence of private knowledge, briefly referred to in the canon, and particularly in the canonical Gospel of Mark, is part of the controversy surrounding the unexpectedly discovered Secret Gospel of Mark.