This article is about the written accounts of the life of Jesus. For the message of Christianity, the "Good News", see the gospel
. For other uses, see Gospel (disambiguation)
originally meant the Christian
but in the 2nd century it came to be used also for the books in which the message was set out;
in this sense a gospel can be defined as a loose-knit, episodic narrative of the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth
, culminating in his trial and death and concluding with various reports of his post-resurrection appearances.
The four canonical gospels
share the same basic outline: Jesus begins his public ministry in conjunction with that of John the Baptist
, calls disciples, teaches and heals and confronts the Pharisees
, dies on the cross, and is raised from the dead.
Each has its own distinctive understanding of Jesus and his divine role:
Mark never calls him "God",
Luke expands on Mark while eliminating some passages entirely, but still follows his plot more faithfully than does Matthew,
and John, the most overtly theological, is the first to make Christological judgements outside the context of the narrative of Jesus's life.
They were probably written between AD 66 and 110.
All four were anonymous (the modern names were added in the 2nd century), almost certainly none were by eyewitnesses, and all are the end-products of long oral and written transmission.
Mark was the first to be written, using a variety of sources;
the authors of Matthew and Luke, acting independently, used Mark for their narrative of Jesus's career, supplementing it with the collection of sayings called the Q document
and additional material unique to each;
and there is a near-consensus that John had its origins as a "signs" source (or gospel) that circulated within a Johannine community
Modern scholars are cautious of relying on the gospels uncritically, but 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.
The four canonical gospels share the same basic outline of the life of Jesus: he begins his public ministry in conjunction with that of John the Baptist
, calls disciples, teaches and heals and confronts the Pharisees
, dies on the cross, and is raised from the dead.
Each has its own distinctive understanding of him and his divine role:
Mark never calls him "God" or claims that he existed prior to his earthly life, apparently believes that he had a normal human parentage and birth, makes no attempt to trace his ancestry back to King David
, and originally had no post-resurrection appearances
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 knew of the tradition.
Matthew and Luke base their narratives of the life of Jesus on that in Mark, but each makes subtle changes, Matthew stressing Jesus's divine nature – for example, the "young man" who appears at Jesus' tomb in Mark becomes a radiant angel in Matthew.
Similarly, 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 divinity.
Luke, while following Mark's plot more faithfully than does Matthew, has expanded on the source, corrected Mark's grammar and syntax, and eliminated some passages entirely, notably most of chapters 6 and 7.
John, the most overtly theological, is the first to make Christological judgements outside the context of the narrative of Jesus's life.
Scholars recognise that the differences of detail between the gospels are irreconcilable, and any attempt to harmonise them would only disrupt their distinct theological messages.
Matthew, Mark and Luke are termed the synoptic gospels
because they present very similar accounts of the life of Jesus. John presents a significantly different picture of Jesus's career,
omitting any mention of his ancestry, birth and childhood, his baptism
John's chronology and arrangement of incidents is also distinctly different, clearly describing the passage of three years in Jesus's ministry in contrast to the single year of the synoptics, placing the cleansing of the Temple
at the beginning rather than at the end, and the Last Supper
on the day before Passover instead of being a Passover meal.
The Gospel of John is the only gospel to call Jesus God. In contrast to Mark, where Jesus hides his identity as messiah, in John he openly proclaims it.
Like the rest of the New Testament
, the four gospels were written in Greek.
The Gospel of Mark
probably dates from c. AD 66–70,Matthew
around AD 85–90,
Despite the traditional ascriptions, all four are anonymous and most scholars agree that none were written by eyewitnesses.
(A few conservative scholars defend the traditional ascriptions or attributions, but for a variety of reasons the majority of scholars have abandoned this view or hold it only tenuously.)
In the immediate aftermath of Jesus' death his followers expected him to return at any moment, certainly within their own lifetimes, and 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, not in any order;
- Written collections of miracle stories, parables, sayings, etc., with oral tradition continuing alongside these;
- Written proto-gospels preceding and serving as sources for the gospels – the dedicatory preface of Luke, for example, testifies to the existence of previous accounts of the life of Jesus.
- Gospels formed by combining proto-gospels, written collections and still-current oral tradition.
Mark is generally agreed to be the first gospel;
it uses a variety of sources, including conflict stories (Mark 2:1–3:6), apocalyptic
discourse (4:1–35), and collections of sayings, although not the sayings gospel known as the Gospel of Thomas
and probably not the Q source
used by Matthew and Luke.
The authors of Matthew and Luke, acting independently, used Mark for their narrative of Jesus's career, supplementing it with the collection of sayings called the Q document
and additional material unique to each called the M source
(Matthew) and the L source
Mark, Matthew and Luke are called the synoptic gospels
because of the close similarities between them in terms of content, arrangement, and language.
The authors and editors of John may have known the synoptics, but did not use them in the way that Matthew and Luke used Mark.
There is a near-consensus that this gospel had its origins as a "signs" source (or gospel) that circulated within the Johannine community
(the community that produced John and the three epistles associated with the name), later expanded with a Passion narrative and a series of discourses.[note 3]
All four also use the Jewish scriptures, by quoting or referencing passages, or by interpreting texts, or by alluding to or echoing biblical themes.
Such use can be extensive: Mark's description of the Parousia
(second coming) is made up almost entirely of quotations from scripture.
Matthew is full of quotations and allusions
and although John uses scripture in a far less explicit manner, its influence is still pervasive.
Their source was the Greek version of the scriptures, called the Septuagint
– they do not seem familiar with the original Hebrew.
Genre and historical reliability
The consensus among modern scholars is that the gospels are a subset of the ancient genre of bios
, or ancient biography
Ancient biographies were concerned with providing examples for readers to emulate while preserving and promoting the subject's reputation and memory; the gospels were never simply biographical, they were propaganda
As such, they present the Christian message of the second half of the first century AD,
and 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 majority view among critical scholars is that the authors of Matthew and Luke have based their narratives on Mark's gospel, editing him to suit their own ends, and the contradictions and discrepancies between these three and John make it impossible to accept both traditions as equally reliable.
In addition, the gospels we read today have been edited and corrupted over time, 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".
Most of these are insignificant, but many are significant,
an example being Matthew 1:18, altered to imply the pre-existence of Jesus.
For these reasons modern scholars are cautious of relying on the gospels uncritically, but 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.
Scholars usually agree that John is not without historical value: certain of its sayings are as old or older than their synoptic counterparts, its representation of the topography
is often superior to that of the synoptics, its testimony that Jesus was executed before, rather than on, Passover, might well be more accurate, and its presentation of Jesus in the garden and the prior meeting held by the Jewish authorities are possibly more historically plausible than their synoptic parallels.
Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that the author had direct knowledge of events, or that his mentions of the Beloved Disciple
as his source should be taken as a guarantee of his reliability.
Textual history and canonisation
The oldest gospel text known is 𝔓52
, a fragment of John dating from the first half of the 2nd century.
The creation of a Christian canon was probably a response to the 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. 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.
Non-canonical (apocryphal) gospels
The Gospel of Thomas
The many apocryphal gospels arose from the 1st century onward, frequently under assumed names to enhance their credibility and authority, and often from within branches of Christianity that were eventually branded heretical.
They can be broadly organised into the following categories:
- Infancy gospels: arose in the 2nd century, include the Gospel of James, also called the Protoevangelium, which was the first to introduce the concept of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the unrelated Coptic 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.
- Ministry gospels
- Sayings gospels and agrapha
- Passion, resurrection and post-resurrection gospels
- Gospel harmonies: in which the four canonical gospels are combined into a single narrative, either to present a consistent text or to produce a more accessible account of Jesus' life.
The apocryphal gospels can also be seen in terms of the communities which produced them:
- The Jewish-Christian gospels are the products of Christians of Jewish origin who had not given up their Jewish identity: they regarded Jesus as the messiah of the Jewish scripture, but did not agree that he was God, an idea which, although central to Christianity as it eventually developed, is contrary to Jewish beliefs.
- Gnostic gospels uphold the idea that the universe is the product of a hierarchy of gods, of whom the Jewish god is a rather low-ranking member. Gnosticism holds that Jesus was entirely "spirit", and that his earthly life and death were therefore only an appearance, not a reality. Many Gnostic texts deal not in concepts of sin and repentance, but with illusion and enlightenment.
The major apocryphal gospels (after Bart Ehrman, "Lost Christianities" – comments on content are by Ehrman unless otherwise noted) 
- ^ (/
ˈɡɒspəl/) is the Old English translation of Greek εὐαγγέλιον, meaning "good news"; this may be seen from analysis of ευαγγέλιον (εὖ "good" + ἄγγελος "messenger" + -ιον diminutive suffix). The Greek term was Latinized as evangelium in the Vulgate, and translated into Latin as bona annuntiatio. In Old English, it was translated as gōdspel (gōd "good" + spel "news"). The Old English term was retained as gospel in Middle English Bible translations and hence remains in use also in Modern English.
- ^ The priority of Mark is accepted by most scholars, but there are important dissenting opinions: see the article Synoptic problem.
- ^ The debate over the composition of John is too complex to be treated adequately in a single paragraph; for a more nuanced view see Aune (1987), "Gospel of John".
- ^ The church has made a point of supporting four separate gospels.
- ^ Alexander 2006, p. 16.
- ^ a b Boring 2006, pp. 13–14.
- ^ a b Reddish 2011, pp. 21–22.
- ^ a b Sanders 1995, pp. 4–5.
- ^ Anderson 2011, p. 52.
- ^ Honoré 1986, pp. 95–147.
- ^ Burkett 2002, pp. 124–125.
- ^ Perkins 2012, p. [page needed].
- ^ Aune 1987, pp. 243–245.
- ^ Allen 2013, pp. 43–44.
- ^ Keith & Le Donne 2012, p. [page needed].
- ^ Theissen & Merz 1998, pp. 36–37.
- ^ Ehrman 2005b, pp. xi–xii.
- ^ a b Cross & Livingstone 2005, "Gospel of St. Peter".
- ^ a b c d Cross & Livingstone 2005, "Gospel of Thomas".
- ^ Casey 2010, p. [page needed].
- ^ Meier 1991, p. [page needed].
- ^ Funk, Hoover & Jesus Seminar 1993, "The Gospel of Thomas".
- ^ Gamble 1985, pp. 30–35.
- ^ Achtemeier 1985, p. [page needed].
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