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For the genre of Christian-themed music, see gospel music.

In Christianity, gospel means "good news". The word gospel derives from the Old English word for "good news", a translation of the Greek word ευαγγέλιον, evangelion.

Gospel has generally been used in three ways:

  1. To denote the proclamation of God's saving activity in Jesus of Nazareth or to denote the message proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth. This is the original New Testament usage (see Romans 1.1 or Mark 1.1).
  2. More popularly to refer to the four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and sometimes other non-canonical works (eg. Gospel of Thomas), that offer a narrative of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Some modern scholars have used the term to denote a hypothetical genre of Early Christian literature (cf. Peter Stuhlmacher, ed., Das Evangelium und die Evangelien, Tůbingen 1983, also in English: The Gospel and the Gospels).

The expression "gospel" was used by Paul before the literary Gospels of the New Testament canon had been produced, when he reminded the men of the church at Corinth "of the gospel I preached to you" (1 Corinthians 15.1) through which, Paul averred, they were being saved, and he characterized it in the simplest terms, emphasizing Christ's appearances after the Resurrection (15.3 – 8):

"...that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; [4] that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; [5] that he appeared to Kephas, then to the Twelve. [6] After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. [7] After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. [8] Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me."

The use of gospel (or its Greek equivalent evangelion) to denote a particular genre of writing dates to the 2nd century. It was clearly used to denote a genre in Justin Martyr (c. 155) and more ambiguously so earlier in Ignatius of Antioch (c. 117).


Canonical Gospels

Major events in Jesus' life in the Gospels

Of the many gospels written in antiquity, exactly four gospels came to be accepted as part of the New Testament, or canonical. An insistence upon a canonical four, and no others, was a central theme of Irenaeus of Lyons, c. 185. In his central work, Adversus Haereses Irenaeus denounced various Christian groups that used only one gospel, such as Aramaic Matthew, as well as groups that embraced the texts of new revelations, such as the Valentinians (A.H. 1.11.9). 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 (1.11.8). 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 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.

Origin of the canonical Gospels

Main discussion: Synoptic problem.

Among the canonical Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke include many of the same passages in the life of Jesus and sometimes use identical or very similar wording. John expresses itself in a different style and relates the same incidents in a different way— even in a revised narrative order— and is often full of more encompassing theological and philosophical messages than the first three canonical Gospel accounts. It is John that explicitly introduces Jesus as God incarnate.

(The non-canonical Gospel of Peter reports much of the same material as canonical Matthew, Mark and Luke; and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas reports many of the same sayings of Jesus.)

The 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 JJ 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.

The understanding 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 "Two-Gospel Hypothesis". However, since the Enlightenment scholars have been proposing also many other solutions to the Synoptic Problem; and the dominant view today is that Mark is the first Gospel, with Matthew and Luke borrowing passages both from that Gospel and from at least one other common source, lost to history, termed by scholars 'Q' (from German: Quelle, meaning source. This view is known as the "Two Source Hypothesis". The related "Four Source Hypothesis" maintains that Matthew and Luke also had independent sources, termed by scholars M and L.

Another theory which addresses the synoptic problem is the Farrer Hypothesis. This theory maintains Markan priority (that Mark was written first) and dispenses with the need for a theoretical document Q. What Austin Farrer has argued is that Luke used Matthew as a source as well as Mark, explaining the similarities between them without having to refer to a hypothetical document.

Estimates for the dates when the canonical Gospel accounts were written vary significantly; and the evidence for any of the dates is scanty. Conservative scholars tend to date earlier than others. 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:

  • Matthew: c. 70–100 as the majority view, with conservative scholars arguing for a pre-70 date, particularly if they do not accept Mark as the first gospel written.
  • Mark: c. 68–73
  • 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.

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, and was known to Church fathers as the Gospel of the Hebrews, or that it was translated from Aramaic 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 (see Peshitta).

Non-canonical gospels

Main article: New Testament apocrypha.

In addition to the four canonical gospels there have been other gospels that were not accepted into the canon. Some of these works appear to be later compositions than the canonical gospels, and as such 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 churches, including the Vatican.

The two earliest non-canonical gospels are the sayings Gospel of Thomas and the narrative Gospel of Peter.

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 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 AD 175. 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. AD 150, produced his own edition of the Gospel of Luke in accordance with his dualistic belief in two different gods, the compassionate God of Christ and the cruel God of the Old Testament. Specifically, he removed those parts of Luke that he considered too "Jewish". He also rejected all other gospels.

The existence of private knowledge, briefly referred to in the canon, is part of the contention surrounding the Secret Gospel of Mark.

List of non-canonical ("apocryphal") Gospels

Some Gospels that were not eventually included in the canon are similar in style and content to the canonical Gospels. Others are "sayings gospels", as lost Q is supposed to have been. Still others are Gnostic in style and content, presenting a very different view of Jesus' teaching.

Gospels that were not accepted, which form part of the New Testament Apocrypha, include:

Other works claiming to be gospels have surfaced in later periods. The Gospel of Barnabas originated in the medieval period. Works from the modern period (sometimes called modern apocrypha) include the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Life of Issa. Parts of the Book of Mormon can also be considered to be a gospel, since they purport to tell of Jesus' appearances on the American continent.

There also works that do not purport to be revealed but are titled "gospel" anyway:

Liturgical usage

In many Christian churches, all Christians present stand when a passage from one of the Gospels is read publicly, and sit when a passage from a different part of the Bible is read. The reading of the Gospels, often contained in a liturgical edition containing only the four Gospels, is traditionally done by a minister or priest, and in many traditions is brought into the midst of the congregation to be read.

Usage in Eastern Orthodoxy liturgy

Illustration from the Siysky Gospel (1339).
Illustration from the Siysky Gospel (1339).

The Gospel book, usually decorated in an elaborate metal cover, is normally kept in a central place on the altar. The only things that are permitted to occupy this place on the altar are the chalice and discos for the celebration of the Eucharist or, on certain feasts, a Cross. During the Little Entrance, the Gospel is carried from the altar, through the nave of the church, and back into the altar. For the Gospel reading itself, the Gospel is brought from the altar to the ambo, and afterwards returned to its place.

A Gospel passage is read in the Divine Liturgy on every Sunday or feast, and at daily services during the week. The reading is determined according to the annual liturgical calendar. (If a feast falls on a Sunday, the reading for that feast will often be included after or in place of the Sunday reading.) The cycle of readings begins with Pascha and the Pentecostarion (between Pascha and Pentecost), continues with the Sundays after Pentecost, and concludes with the Lenten Triodion and Holy Week. The number of Sundays from one Pascha to the next varies from year to year; in some years, not all the passages for Sundays after Pentecost will be read, while in others, some weeks will have to be repeated.

The entirity of the four Gospels is read in the course of the liturgical year, beginning with John 1:1-17 at the Paschal Matins Ressurrection Service. The readings from John end on the Sunday of Pentecost, followed on Holy Spirit Monday by Matthew, starting in Chapter 4 (the Genealogy of Christ through the Nativity is read during the services for Christmas). From the 12th Monday through the 17th Friday after Pentecost, the readings are from the Gospel of St. Mark, with readings from Matt. Ch. 25 on Saturday and Sunday of the 17th week. The 18th Monday after Pentecost begins the readings from Luke, ending on the 29th Sunday. During the remaining weeks, 30-32, the weekday reading are from Mark, the weekend from Luke. This same pattern continues throughout the preparatory weeks from the Lenten Triodion, the Orthodox service book containing texts for the services of Great Lent and Holy Week.

Miniature of St Luke from the Peresopnytsia Gospel (1561).
Miniature of St Luke from the Peresopnytsia Gospel (1561).

Once Great Lent begins (during the service of Vespers on Forgivness Sunday), there are no Gospel readings on weekdays; instead, three Old Testament reading are appointed, one each from Genesis, Isaiah, and Proverbs (note: the Lenten services are structured differently to allow this arrangement of reading without the Gospel; see Presanctified Liturgy). On Saturdays and Sundays, a Gospel is read with a message applicable to what the theme of that Sunday is (e.g. St. Mary of Egypt, the Cross, Holy Icons). This practice continues through Holy Week, with the exception of Matins of Great and Holy Friday, during which the 12 Passion Gosples are read, and ther service culminates with a prossesion with a large wodden replica of the Cross, borne by the Priest to the ambo, and Christ is symbolically crucified on it. There are no other Gospel readings until Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday, and then the Ressurectional Gospel at Midnight, Pascha Morning.

Typically, the Gospel is publicly read by a deacon after he receives a blessing from the celebrating priest or bishop. If there is no deacon present, the priest will read the Gospel himself. Passages from the Old Testament and the Epistles are usually read by a reader or a designated lay person. As in other churches, all stand while the Gospel is being read.

In the Sunday Matins service, after the reading of Gospel by a priest, the faithful kiss the Bible and the Cross and then receive the benediction from a priest.


In heraldry the Gospel is a "charge", shown as a sort of book.

See also

  • logia agrapha are the collections of phrases attributed to Jesus Christ that are not found in the canonical gospels.
  • Godspell is a musical based on the gospels of Jesus Christ. Godspel is archaic English for Gospel.

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