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- This article is about the texts of the Gospels. For information about the message of the good news itself, see Gospel.
Gospels are a genre of ancient literature concerning the life of Jesus. The word derives from the Old English word for "good news," a translation of the Greek word ευαγγέλιον (evangelion). This refers to the "good news" being told, that Jesus has redeemed a fallen world. Each of the books reveals, by preaching and reinterpretation, the story of Jesus Christ's life, the good news about Christ's life and presence. The word gospel can also have a narrower meaning, especially when used by evangelical Christians, to mean the specific actions of Christ that are necessary for salvation.
The use of gospel (as its Greek equivalent) to denote a particular genre of writing dates back 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).
Of the many gospels written in antiquity, exactly four gospels came to be accepted as part of the New Testament or canonical, possibly as early as Irenaeus of Lyons, c. 185.
Origin of the canonical Gospels
Among the 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, on the other hand, expresses itself in a different style and relates the same incidents in a different way, and is often full of more encompassing theological and philosophical messages.
The parallels between the first three Gospels 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 gospels in a three-column table called a synopsis. As a result, the 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 Gospels more generally, is known as the synoptic problem.
Many solutions to the synoptic problem have been proposed, but the dominant view is that Mark is the first Gospel, with Matthew and Luke borrowing passages both from that Gospel and from another, lost source, known as Q. This view is known as the "Two Source" hypothesis. The "Four Source" hypothesis includes two other sources 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 gospels 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. It has been suggested that Matthew may have originally been written in Aramaic, or that it was translated from Aramaic to Greek at a very early stage, probably by the author himself. Regardless, no Aramaic original texts of the Gospels have ever been found, only translations from the Greek (see Peshitta).
In addition to the four canonical gospels there have been many other gospels that were not accepted into the canon. 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 Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas) related many incidents from the childhood of Jesus that are not included in the canonical gospels.
The Diatessaron was a harmonization of the four canonical gospels into single narrative 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.
See also Secret Gospel of Mark.
Other books, which were not accepted, form part of the New Testament Apocrypha, and include:
- Authentic Matthew
- Gospel of Thomas
- Gospel of Philip
- Gospel of Peter
- Gospel of Mary
- Gospel of the Egyptians
- Gospel of the Hebrews
- Gospel of James
See also the mistaken "Gospel of Hermes."
Some of these works are similar in style and content to the canonical Gospels. Others are Gnostic in style and content, presenting a very different view of Jesus' teaching.
Other works claiming to be gospels have surfaced in later periods. The Gospel of Barnabas originates 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.
Typically, the Gospel is publicly read only by a priest or bishop at most services, though it is appointed to be read by a deacon (at the blessing of the protos) during the Divine Liturgy and when appointed for the Presanctified Liturgy, although other Bible passages may be read by a designated lay person. It is customary that all stand while the Gospel is being read.
The Gospel book is normally kept in a prominent place on the altar. The only thing that is permitted to occupy its place on the altar is the Body and Blood of Christ during the Divine Liturgy, or on certain feast days a Cross. Often, when the Gospel is read, it is brought from the altar to the nave in procession, and afterwards returned to its place.
In the Sunday Matins service, one of eleven Resurrection accounts is read, according to the eothinon. After the reading of Gospel by the priest, if it is normal Sunday (i.e., not one of the Great Feasts of the Lord) the faithful may venerate the Gospel book as the priest holds it.