A gospel is a written account of the career and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. The word originated as a contraction from old English "god spel" meaning "good news", "glad tidings (of the kingdom of God)" and is comparable to the Greek εὐαγγέλιον, evangelion)
The four gospels of the New Testament — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — are almost our only source of information on Jesus, and thus occupy a uniquely important place in Christianity. They were all written in the period between c. 70 AD and the end of the 1st century, by anonymous authors, and stand at the end of a process of oral and written tradition that began on, or even before, the death of Jesus.
For various reasons modern scholars are cautious of relying on them uncritically, nevertheless, they do provide a good idea of the public career of Jesus, and critical study can attempt to distinguish the original ideas of Jesus from those of the later authors.
Canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John)
Stages: oral tradition to written gospel
In the immediate aftermath of Jesus' death his followers expected him to return at any moment, and certainly within their own lifetimes. In consequence there was little motivation to write anything down for future generations, but as eyewitnesses began to die, and as the missionary needs of the church grew, there was an increasing demand and need for written versions of the founder's life and teachings. The stages of this process can be summarised as follows:
- Oral traditions — stories and sayings passed on largely as separate self-contained units, and not in any chronological order;
- Written collections of miracle stories, parables, sayings, etc., with oral tradition continuing alongside these;
- Proto-gospels preceding and serving as sources for the written gospels — the dedicatory preface of Luke, for example, testifies to the existence of several previous accounts of the life of Jesus.
- Gospels formed by combining proto-gospels, written collections and still-current oral tradition.
Given this history, it is almost certain that none of the four gospels were written by eyewitnesses. Evidence of this can be seen in the conflicts between them: to take a few examples, according to the synoptic gospels, Jesus' mission took one year, was spent primarily in Galilee, and climaxed with a single visit to Jerusalem at which he cleansed the Temple of the money-changers, while in John, Jerusalem was the focus of Jesus' mission, he visited it three times (making his mission last three years rather than one), and the cleansing of the Temple took place at the beginning rather than the end of the ministry.
The first three gospels are called the "synoptics", from a Greek phrase meaning "seen together", because they put the events of Jesus' life in the same order and have many of the same stories and sayings, often in the same or very similar words.
The usual way of explaining this is that Mark was written first, and that the authors of Matthew and Luke, acting independently, used Mark plus a collection of sayings called the Q document and additional material unique to each called the M source (Matthew) and the L source (Luke).[Notes 2]
Mark was probably written c. AD 66–70, during Nero's persecution of the Christians in Rome or the Jewish revolt, and although Christian tradition ascribes it to John Mark, a companion and interpreter of the apostle Peter, most modern scholars regard the authorship as unknown. The general consensus is that both Matthew and Luke were written around AD 85–90. The consensus has equally rejected the idea that Luke was written by a companion of Paul the Apostle, or that Matthew was by an apostle (the superscription "according to Matthew" was added some time in the 2nd century).
The author of the Gospel of John may have known the synoptic gospels, but he does not use them in the way that Matthew and Luke used Mark. This is the last of four canonical gospels, usually dated to AD 90–110. Christian tradition identified the author as John the Apostle, but most modern scholars treat it as an anonymous work.
The four gospels share a story in which the earthly career of Jesus culminates in his death and bodily resurrection, an event of crucial redemptive significance. The four nevertheless present different narratives, reflecting different intents on the parts of their authors. The most obvious contrast is between John and the three synoptics: both relate the basic story-line from John the Baptist to the resurrection of Jesus, but within this overall framework they present completely different pictures of Jesus' career.
John has no baptism of Jesus, no temptation, no transfiguration of Jesus, it lacks the institution of the Lord's Supper and stories of Jesus' ancestry, birth, and childhood. Jesus's career in the synoptics takes up a single year while in John it takes three, in John the cleansing of the Temple takes place at the beginning of his ministry while in the synoptics it happens at the end, and in the synoptics the Last Supper takes place as a Passover meal, while in John it happens on the day before Passover.
Mark, the first gospel, never calls Jesus "God" or claims that Jesus existed prior to his earthly life, never mentions a virgin birth (the author apparently believes that Jesus had a normal human parentage and birth), and makes no attempt to trace Jesus' ancestry back to King David or Adam. Crucially, Mark originally had no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, although Mark 16:7, in which the young man discovered in the tomb instructs the women to tell "the disciples and Peter" that Jesus will see them again in Galilee, hints that the author may have known of the tradition.
Matthew reinterprets Mark, stressing Jesus' teachings as much as his acts, and making subtle changes to the narrative in order to stress his divine nature – Mark's "young man" who appears at Jesus' tomb, for example, becomes a radiant angel in Matthew. The miracle stories in Mark confirm Jesus' status as an emissary of God (which was Mark's understanding of the Messiah), but in Matthew they demonstrate his divinity. Luke, while following Mark's plot more faithfully than does Matthew, has expanded on the source, corrected Mark's grammar and syntax, and eliminating some passages entirely, notably most of chapters 6 and 7, which he apparently felt reflected poorly on the disciples and painted Jesus too much like a magician.
The synoptic gospels represent Jesus as an exorcist and healer who preached in parables about the coming Kingdom of God. He preached first in Galilee and later in Jerusalem, where he cleansed the temple. He states that he offers no sign as proof (Mark) or only the sign of Jonah (Matthew and Luke). In Mark, apparently written with a Roman audience in mind, Jesus is a heroic man of action, given to powerful emotions, including agony. In Matthew, apparently written for a Jewish audience, Jesus is repeatedly called out as the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy.
In Luke, apparently written for gentiles, Jesus is especially concerned with the poor. Luke emphasizes the importance of prayer and the action of the Holy Spirit in Jesus's life and in the Christian community. Jesus appears as a stoic supernatural being, unmoved even by his own crucifixion.[page needed] Like Matthew, Luke insists that salvation offered by Christ is for all, and not only for the Jews.
The Gospel of John is the only gospel to call Jesus God, and in contrast to Mark, where Jesus hides his identity as messiah, in John he openly proclaims it. It represents Jesus as an incarnation of the eternal Word (Logos), who spoke no parables, talked extensively about himself, and did not explicitly refer to a Second Coming. Jesus preaches in Jerusalem, launching his ministry with the cleansing of the temple. He performs several miracles as signs, most of them not found in the synoptics. The Gospel of John ends:(21:25) "And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen."
The consensus among modern scholars is that the gospels belong to the ancient genre of bios, or biography. Ancient biographies were concerned with providing examples for readers to emulate while preserving and promoting the subject's reputation and memory, and so they included both propaganda and kerygma (preaching) in their works.
As Luke's attempt to link the birth of Jesus to the census of Quirinius demonstrates, there is no guarantee that the gospels are historically accurate. The gospel authors altered the traditions at their disposal (their sources) to serve their own ends — thus Matthew and Luke have frequently edited Mark, and the contradictions and discrepancies between John and the synoptics make it impossible to accept both as reliable
A second problem is that the gospels as we have them are not the originals, but have been edited and recopied over time, and evidently differ from them in thousands of ways. In that long chain of transmission the texts have been corrupted, leading Origen to complain in the 3rd century that "the differences among manuscripts have become great, ... [because copyists] either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please."
Despite all this, scholars are confident that the gospels do provide a good idea of the public career of Jesus, and that critical study can attempt to distinguish the ideas of Jesus from those of later authors and editors.
Canonisation and the non-canonical gospels
The creation of a Christian canon was probably a response to career of the heretic Marcion (c. 85–160), who established a canon of his own with just one gospel, the gospel of Luke, which he edited to fit his own theology. The Muratorian canon, the earliest surviving list of books considered (by its own author at least) to form Christian scripture, included Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and Irenaeus of Lyons went further, stating that there must be four gospels and only four because there were four corners of the Earth and thus the Church should have four pillars.
Epiphanius, Jerome and other early church fathers preserve in their writings citations from Jewish-Christian gospels. Most modern critical scholars consider that the extant citations suggest at least two and probably three distinct works, at least one of which (possibly two) closely parallels the Gospel of Matthew.
Gospel of Thomas
The gospel attributed to Thomas is mostly wisdom without narrating Jesus's life. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says that the original may date from c. 150. It may represent a tradition independent from the canonical gospels, but that developed over a long time and was influenced by Matthew and Luke.
While it can be understood in Gnostic terms, it lacks the characteristic features of Gnostic doctrine. The Jesus Seminar identified two of its unique parables, the parable of the empty jar and the parable of the assassin. It had been lost but was discovered, in a Coptic version dating from c. 350, at Nag Hammadi in 1945–46, and three papyri, dated to c. 200, which contain fragments of a Greek text similar to but not identical with that in the Coptic language, have also been found.
Gospel of Peter
The gospel of Peter was likely written in the first half of the 2nd century. It seems to be largely legendary, hostile toward Jews, and including docetic elements. It had been lost but was rediscovered in the 19th century.
Gospel of Judas
The Gospel of Judas is another controversial and ancient text that purports to tell the story of the gospel from the perspective of Judas, the disciple who is usually said to have betrayed Jesus. It paints an unusual picture of the relationship between Jesus and Judas, in that it appears to interpret Judas's act not as betrayal, but rather as an act of obedience to the instructions of Jesus. The text was recovered from a cave in Egypt by a thief and thereafter sold on the black market until it was finally discovered by a collector who, with the help of academics from Yale and Princeton, was able to verify its authenticity. The document itself does not claim to have been authored by Judas (it is, rather, a gospel about Judas), and is known to date to at least 180 AD.
A genre of "Infancy gospels" (Greek: protoevangelion) arose in the 2nd 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.
Another genre is that of gospel harmonies, in which the four canonical gospels were selectively recast as a single narrative to present a consistent text. Very few fragments of harmonies have survived. The Diatessaron was such a harmonization, compiled by Tatian around 175. It was popular for at least two centuries in Syria, but eventually it fell into disuse.
Marcion's Gospel of Luke
Marcion of Sinope, c. 150, had a much shorter version of the gospel that differed substantially from what has now become the standard text of the gospel of Luke. Marcion's version of the gospel was far less oriented towards the Jewish scriptures than the now canonical texts are. Marcion is said to have rejected all other gospels, including those of Matthew, Mark and especially John, which he allegedly rejected as having been forged by Irenaeus. Marcion's critics alleged that he had edited out the portions he didn't like from the then canonical version, though Marcion is said to have argued that his text was the more genuinely original one.
The Gospel of the Lots of Mary
Written in Coptic, it contains oracles that would have been used to provide support and reassurance to people seeking help for problems. It is not a gospel in the traditional sense, since it doesn’t predominantly teach about Christ.
- Acts of the Apostles (genre)
- Agrapha are the collection of religious sayings attributed to Jesus Christ that are not found in the canonical gospels.
- Apocalyptic literature
- The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ
- Bodmer Papyri
- Godspell is a musical based on the gospels of Jesus Christ. The word "Gódspell" is Anglo Saxon (c. 1000 AD) for Gospel.
- The Gospel
- Gospel (liturgy)
- Gospel in Islam
- List of gospels
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- A detailed discussion of the textual variants in the gospels — covering about 1200 variants on 2000 pages.
- Greek New Testament — the Greek text of the New Testament: specifically the Westcott-Hort text from 1881, combined with the NA26/27 variants.
- Synoptic Parallels A web tool for finding corresponding passages in the Gospels