Godspel, Godspell, Evangelion, Euangelion

General Information

A Gospel is one of the four accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ that begin the New Testament; selections from these books are read or sung in Christian churches during worship services. The English word Gospel is derived from the Old English godspel (good tidings), which is a rendering of the Greek evangelion (good news). Scholars generally agree that all four Gospels, which are written in Greek, draw on earlier Aramaic oral or written sources that preserved many of the actual works and sayings of Jesus.

Synoptic Gospels

The first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are called the Synoptic Gospels (Greek synoptikos,"viewing at a glance") because they provide the same general view of the life and teaching of Jesus. They narrate almost the same incidents, often agreeing in the order of events, and use similar phrasing. In many instances they use identical phrasing.

Until the 19th century nearly all scholars and theologians believed that Matthew was the earliest Gospel. Mark was believed to be an abridged version of Matthew. Luke, which appeared to based on Matthew and Mark, was believed to be the latest of the three. With some modification, this remains the view of some conservative scholars.

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Today, most other scholars accept some modified form of the two-document hypothesis, first developed in the latter part of the 19th century. According to this hypothesis, Mark is the earliest Gospel and provided much of the narrative material, as well as the chronological framework, for both Matthew and Luke. A collection of sayings (with a few narratives) of Jesus, which may have been written in Aramaic, was the second main document, or source, employed by Matthew and Luke (a number of scholars, however, do not agree that it was a single document). This document provided the material lacking in Mark and then, apparently, was lost. It usually is designated as Q (German Quelle,"source"), but sometimes as Logia (Greek for "words" or "sayings"). The authors of Matthew and Luke may also have drawn material from other sources available to them individually.


The Gospel attributed to John the Evangelist differs in many respects from the Synoptics. Several incidents mentioned in John do not occur in any of the Synoptics, and others recorded in the Synoptics are not recorded in John. Also, some of the events common to all of the Gospels appear in a different order in John's narrative: The cleansing of the Temple, for example, appears almost at the beginning of John (2:13-25), but in the Synoptics it is put after Jesus' triumphant final entry into Jerusalem. Most important, John gives different dates for the Last Supper and for the Crucifixion; the former occurs in John before the feast of the Passover, and the latter before the first day of the Passover. Furthermore, in John, Jesus' public ministry is described as lasting for more than two years, whereas the Synoptists describe it as lasting for about one year. Finally, in John, Jesus spends much of his time in Judea, often visiting Jerusalem; the Synoptists center his public ministry in and about the province of Galilee.

Not only the chronology of the narrative, but also the form and content of Jesus' teaching is different in John. The Synoptists present it mainly in the form of parable and epigram. The author of John, however, presents it in long allegorical or meditative discourses and discussions - for example, those on the Good Shepherd (chapter 10) and the Vine (chapter 15). Characteristically, during some of these lengthy discourses, Jesus frequently expresses himself in pithy one-sentence metaphors, such as the following: "I am the bread of life" (6:35); "I am the light of the world" (8:12); "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (14:6). The teaching of Jesus in John generally is concerned more with Jesus' divine nature and relationship to God, whereas the Synoptists tend to emphasize his messianic vocation and dwell more on everyday religious and ethical matters. In addition, John emphasizes the nature and purpose of Jesus from the start of his Gospel. In the Synoptics, these are revealed later in the ministry.

Modern biblical scholars agree that the Gospel of John was written after the Synoptic Gospels. However, there is considerable disagreement over whether the author of John knew the Synoptics and used them as sources. Some scholars believe the author may have known and used the Gospels of Mark and Luke.

Liturgical Use

In the liturgical sense, the term Gospel is applied to the short selections from the four Gospels that are read or sung in the Roman Catholic Mass and the Anglican Communion service, between the Epistle and the creed. In the early centuries of the Christian era, Gospel readings were continuous: A day's reading began at the point in the Gospel at which it had been interrupted in the previous service. The Gospel selection now used for each day is determined by the order of worship set forth in the missal or, according to certain rules, is one chosen by the celebrant from a special lectionary.


Advanced Information

The English word "gospel" (from the Anglo-Saxon god-spell, i.e., God-story) is the usual NT translation of the Greek euangelion. According to Tyndale, the renowned English Reformer and Bible translator, it signified "good, mery, glad and ioyfull tydinge, that maketh a mannes hert glad, and maketh hym synge, daunce, and leepe for ioye" (Prologue to NT). While his definition is more experiential than explicative, it has touched that inner quality which brings the word to life. The gospel is the joyous proclamation of God's redemptive activity in Christ Jesus on behalf of man enslaved by sin.


Euangelion (neut. sing.) is rarely found in the sense of "good tidings" outside of early Christian literature. As used by Homer it referred not to the message but to the reward given to the messenger (e.g., Odyssey xiv. 152). In Attic Greek it always occurred in the plural and generally referred to sacrifices or thank offerings made in behalf of good tidings. Even in the LXX euangelion is found for sure but once (II Kings 4:10: Eng. versions, II Sam.) and there it has the classical meaning of a reward given for good tidings. (In II Kings 18:22, 25, euangelion should undoubtedly be taken as fem. sing. in harmony with vss. 20 and 27 where this form is certain.) Euangelion in the sense of the good news itself belongs to a later period. Outside of Christian literature the neuter singular first appears with this meaning in a papyrus letter from an Egyptian official of the third century A.D. In the plural it is found in a calendar inscription from Priene about 9 B.C. It is not until the writings of the apostolic fathers (e.g., Didache 8:2; II Clement 8:5) that we sense a transition to the later Christian usage of euangelion as referring to a book which sets forth the life and teaching of Jesus (Justin, Apology i. 66).

Against this background the frequency with which euangelion occurs in the NT (more than seventy-five times) with the specific connotation of "good news" is highly informative. It suggests that euangelion is quite distinctively a NT word. Its true significance is therefore found, not by probing its linguistic background, but by observing its specific Christian usage.

This is not to deny, of course, that the basic concept has its rightful origin in the religious aspirations of the nation Israel. Some seven centuries before Christ the prophet Isaiah had delivered a series of prophetic utterances. With vivid imagery he portrayed the coming deliverance of Israel from captivity in Babylon. A Redeemer shall come to Zion preaching good tidings unto the meek and liberty to the captives (Isa. 60:1-2). "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings" (Isa. 52:7). Jerusalem itself is pictured as a herald whose message is good tidings (Isa. 40:9).

Jesus saw in these prophecies a description of his own mission (Luke 4:18-21; 7:22). They expressed that same sense of liberation and exultation which was the true characteristic of his messianic proclamation. What was a first simply a literary allusion came easily to represent the actual message which was being proclaimed. Euangelion was the natural result of the LXX's euangelizein. Thus Mark could write that Jesus came into Galilee "heralding the euangelion of God" (Mark 1:14).

Euangelion in the Gospels

Upon examining the four Gospels we find that the word euangelion is used only by Matthew and Mark. The concept, however, is not foreign to Luke. He uses the verb form twenty-six times in Luke-Acts, and the noun twice in the latter book. In the Fourth Gospel there is no trace of either verb or noun.

In all but one instance Matthew further describes euangelion as the gospel "of the kingdom." This gospel is not to be distinguished from what Mark calls the "gospel of God" (many manuscripts read "the gospel of the kingdom of God") and summarizes in the words," "the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand" (Mark 1:14-15). On the other occasion Matthew writes "this gospel" (Matt. 26:13), the context indicating that Jesus is alluding to his coming death. The phrase "preaching the gospel of the kingdom" is twice used in summary statements of the ministry of Jesus (Matt. 4:23; 9:35). This gospel is to be preached throughout the entire world prior to the consummation of the age (Matt. 24:14; cf. Mark 13:10).

The way in which Mark uses euangelion is suggested by his opening words, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Here euangelion is a semitechnical term meaning "the glad news which tells about Jesus Christ." Where Luke writes "for the sake of the kingdom of God" (Luke 18:29), the Markan parallel is "for my sake and for the gospel" (Mark 10:29). This gospel is of such tremendous import that for its sake a man must be willing to enter upon a life of complete self-denial (Mark 8:35). In the long ending of Mark, Christ commands his disciples to "preach the gospel to the whole creation" (Mark 16:15).

The Gospel According to Paul

Over against the six occasions (discounting parallels) on which euangelion is used by the Gospel writers, it is found a total of sixty times in the writings of Paul. Euangelion is a favorite Pauline term. It is evenly distributed throughout his epistles, missing only in his note to Titus.

Paul's ministry was distinctively that of the propagation of the gospel. Unto this gospel he was set apart (Rom. 1:1) and made a minister according to the grace of God (Eph. 3:7). His special sphere of action was the Gentile world (Rom. 16:16; Gal. 2:7). Since Paul accepted the gospel as a sacred trust (Gal. 2:7), it was necessary that in the discharge of this obligation he speak so as to please God rathern than man (I Tim. 2:4). The divine commission had created a sense of urgency that made him cry out, "Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel" (I Cor. 9:16). For the sake of the gospel Paul was willing to become all things to all men (I Cor. 9:22-23). No sacrifice was too great. Eternal issues were at stake. Those whose minds were blinded and did not obey the gospel were perishing and would ultimately reap the vengeance of divine wrath (II Cor. 4:3; II Thess. 1:9). On the other hand, to those who believed, the gospel had effectively become the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16).

Because Paul on occasion speaks of his message as "my gospel" (Rom. 2:16; II Tim. 2:8), and because in his letter to the Galations he goes to some pains to stress that he did not receive it from man (Gal. 1:11ff.), it is sometimes maintained that Paul's gospel should be distinguished from that of apostolic Christianity in general.

This does not follow. I Cor. 15:3-5 sets forth with crystal clarity the message of primitive Christianity. Paul, using terms equivalent to the technical rabbinic words for the reception and transmission of tradition, refers to this message as something which he had received and passed on (vs. 3). In vs. 11 he can say, "Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed." In Galations, Paul tells how he laid before the apostles at Jerusalem the gospel which he had preached. Far from finding fault with the message, they extended to him the right hand of fellowship (Gal. 2:9). What Paul meant by his earlier remarks is that the charges against his gospel as a mere human message were completely fraudulent. The revelation of the full theological impact of the Christ-event was God-given and stemmed from his encounter on the Damascus road. Thus he speaks of "my gospel" meaning his own personal apprehension of the gospel. On other occasions he can speak freely of "our gospel" (II Cor. 4:3; I Thess. 1:5).

For Paul, the euangelion is preeminently the "gospel of God" (Rom. 1:1; 15:16; II Cor. 11:7; I Thes. 2:2, 8-9). It proclaims the redemptive activity of God. This activity is bound up with the person and work of God's Son, Christ Jesus. Thus it is also the "gospel of Christ" (I Cor. 9:12; II Cor. 2:12; 9:13; 10:14; Gal. 1:7; I Thess. 3:2; vss. 16 and 19 of Rom. 15 indicate that these are interchangeable terms). This gospel is variously expressed as "the gospel of our Lord Jesus" (II Thess. 1:8), "the gospel of the glory of the blessed God" (I Tim. 1:11), "the gospel of his Son" (Rom. 1:9), and "the gospel of the glory of Christ" (II Cor. 4:4). It is a gospel of salvation (Eph. 1:13) and peace (Eph. 6:15). It proclaims the hope of eternal life (Col. 1:23). It is "the word of truth" (Col. 1:5; Eph. 1:13). Through this gospel, life and immortality are brought to light (II Tim. 1:10).

The Apostolic Preaching

If we wish to investigate more closely the specific content of the primitive gospel, we will do well to adopt the basic approach of C. H. Dodd (The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments). While Dodd refers to the message as kerygma, he is ready to admit that this term is a virtual equivalent of euangelion. (Kerygma stresses the manner of delivery; euangelion, the essential nature of the content.)

There are two sources for the determination of the primitive proclamation. Of primary importance are the fragments of pre-Pauline tradition that lie embedded in the writings of the apostle. These segments can be uncovered by the judicious application of certain literary and formal criteria. While at least one purports to be the actual terms in which the gospel was preached (I Cor. 15:3-5), others take the form of early Christian hymns (e.g., Phil. 2:6-11), summaries of the message (e.g., Rom. 10:9), or creedal formulas (I Cor. 12:3; I Tim. 3:16).

A second source is the early Petrine speeches in Acts. These speeches (on the basis of their Aramaic background, freedom from Paulinism, and the general trustworthiness of Luke as a historian) can be shown to give reliably the gist of what Peter actually said and not what a second generation Christian thought he might have said.

These two sources combine to set forth one common apostolic gospel. In briefest outline, this message contained: (1) a historical proclamation of the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus, set forth as the fulfillment of prophecy and involving man's responsibility; (2) a theological evaluation of the person of Jesus as both Lord and Christ; (3) a summons to repent and receive the forgiveness of sins.

It will be noticed that the essential core of this message is not the dawn of the messianic age (as Dodd implies), although this is most certainly involved, but that sequence of redemptive events which sweeps the hearer along with compelling logic toward the climactic confession that Jesus is Lord.

The gospel is not the product of a bewildered church pondering the theological significance of Good Friday. It is rather the result of a natural development which had its origins in the teachings of Jesus himself. The Passion sayings of Jesus, far from being "prophecies after the event" (cf. R. Bultmann, Theology of the NT, I 29), are undeniable evidence that Jesus laid the foundation for a theology of the cross. In his teaching regarding his own person Jesus furnished what R. H. Fuller has aptly termed "the raw materials of Christology" (The Mission and Achievement of Jesus). The resurrection was the catalyst which precipitated in the minds of the disciples the total significance of God's redemptive activity. It released the gospel!

This gospel is power (Rom. 1:16). As an instrument of the Holy Spirit it convicts (I Thess. 1:5) and converts (Col. 1:6). It cannot be fettered (II Tim. 2:9). Although it is good news, it is strenously opposed by a rebellious world (I Thess. 2:2). Opposition to the message takes the form of opposition to the messenger (II Tim. 1:11-12; Philem. 13). Yet those who proclaim it must do so boldly (Eph. 6:19) and with transparent simplicity (II Cor. 4:2), not with eloquence lest the cross of Christ be robbed of its power (I Cor. 1:17). To those who refuse the gospel it is both foolishness and a stumbling block (I Cor. 1:18ff.), but to those who respond in faith it proves itself to be "the power of God unto salvation" (Rom. 1:16).

R H Mounce
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

R.H. Strachan, "The Gospel in the NT," IB, VII; W. Barclay, NT Wordbook; A.E.J. Rawlinson, EncyBrit X, 536ff.; M. Burrows, "The Origin of the Term 'Gospel,'"JBL 44:21-33; W. Milligan, Thess., Note E;A. Harnack, Constitution and Law, Appendix III; L. Clarke, "What Is the Gospel?" in Divine Humanity; V. Becker, NIDNTT, II, 107ff.; G. Friedrich, TDNT, II, 705ff,; R. H. Mounce, The Essential Nature of NT Preaching.


Advanced Information

Gospel is a word of Anglo-Saxon origin, and meaning "God's spell", i.e., word of God, or rather, according to others, "good spell", i.e., good news. It is the rendering of the Greek evangelion, i.e., "good message." It denotes

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)


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The central fact of Christian preaching was the intelligence that the Saviour had come into the world (Matt. 4:23; Rom. 10:15); and the first Christian preachers who called their account of the person and mission of Christ by the term evangelion (= good message) were called evangelistai (= evangelists) (Eph. 4:11; Acts 21:8). There are four historical accounts of the person and work of Christ: "the first by Matthew, announcing the Redeemer as the promised King of the kingdom of God; the second by Mark, declaring him 'a prophet, mighty in deed and word; the third by Luke, of whom it might be said that the represents Christ in the special character of the Saviour of sinners (Luke 7:36; 15:18); the fourth by John, who represents Christ as the Son of God, in whom deity and humanity become one. The ancient Church gave to Matthew the symbol of the lion, to Mark that of a man, to Luke that of the ox, and to John that of the eagle: these were the four faces of the cherubim" (Ezek. 1:10).


The Gospels were all composed during the latter part of the first century, and there is distinct historical evidence to show that they were used and accepted as authentic before the end of the second century.

Mutual relation

"If the extent of all the coincidences be represented by 100, their proportionate distribution will be: Matthew, Mark, and Luke, 53; Matthew and Luke, 21; Matthew and Mark, 20; Mark and Luke, 6. Looking only at the general result, it may be said that of the contents of the synoptic Gospels [i.e., the first three Gospels] about two-fifths are common to the three, and that the parts peculiar to one or other of them are little more than one-third of the whole."


Did the evangelists copy from one another? The opinion is well founded that the Gospels were published by the apostles orally before they were committed to writing, and that each had an independent origin.

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)

Social Implications of Gospel

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The gospel is the proclamation and demonstration of God's redemptive activity in Jesus Christ to a world enslaved by sin. Redemption is personal as men and women respond to the claims of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Redemption is also social, but the nature, priority, and extent of the social implications of the gospel have not been as readily agreed upon.

Early Period

The social implications of the gospel have been evident in every era of the church's life. The early church, for example, expressed a social witness by faithfulness to the radical demands of Christian community (Acts 2:42-46). Limited in their social expression by virtue of being members of a persecuted sect, many Christians challenged cultural values in their refusal to bear arms.

The church continuously manifested its social conscience with a concern for the poor. Basil the Great, for example, created a whole complex of charitable institutions in the fourth century. The monastic movement generated much philanthropic activity. The institutional charities of the Roman Catholic Church take their impetus from this medieval social heritage.

The Reformation heralded a renewal of biblical faith, including the Scripture's social emphasis. Though Martin Luther denied that good works had any place in the drama of salvation, he nevertheless commended good works as the proper response to the gracious gift of redemption. John Calvin, a second-generation Reformer, gave greater attention to the implications of the gospel for society. Whereas for Luther the civil rule was a restraining force because of sin, for Calvin government should be a positive force for the common welfare. In Calvin's Geneva this meant a commitment to education and to welfare for refugees, and outside Geneva sanctioning, under certain circumstances, the right of resistance for peoples suffering under unjust rulers.

Modern evangelicalism traces its roots to the Reformation, but is more directly the result of a variety of post-Reformation movements. Puritanism grew up in England in the sixteenth century, but its spirit flowered in America in the seventeenth century. "The Puritan dilemma" in America was the tension between individual freedom and social order. The strong emphasis on the covenant, though, meant an impetus toward self-sacrifice for the common good. Puritanism is sometimes remembered for its individualism, but it deserves to be known as much for its contribution to the social realm, bequeathing elements that would help form the American political tradition.

German pietism infused new life into seventeenth century Lutheranism. Though often characterized as individualistic, legalistic, and other-worldly, the pietists nevertheless complained heartily against a lifeless orthodoxy that did not translate into love and compassion. Thus Philipp Jakob Spener challenged wealthy Christians to give their goods to the poor in order to eliminate begging. Spencer's pupil, August Hermann Francke, transformed the University of Halle into a training center for pastors and missionaries, and in the town itself an orphanage and hospital were founded and the poor were both catechized and fed.

Fueled in part by the example of pietism, and especially the influence of the Moravians, an evangelical revival swept across Great Britain in the eighteenth century. John and Charles Wesley, along with George Whitefield, preached in fields and streets in an attempt to recapture the alienated poor for the church. Their emphasis on sanctification and the holy life energized their followers into opposing slavery, exhibiting concern for prisoners, and initiating reforms related to the industrial revolution.

In America the First Great Awakening, which began as a season of individual conversions, resulted in an intercolonial movement that reshaped the social order. Under the leadership of Jonathan Edwards and Whitefield the hierarchical nature of both church and society was challenged. Indeed, it is widely recognized that this movement, with its democratizing influence, helped prepare the way for the American Revolution.

Modern Period

The modern discussion about the social implications of the gospel has been shaped by a variety of movements and factors. Revivalism has been a crucial force in determining the nature of the discussion because of the prominence of revival leaders in molding modern evangelicalism. In the nineteenth century Charles G. Finney maintained that religion came first, reform second, but he sent his converts from the "anxious bench" into a variety of reform movements, including abolitionism. Energized by a postmillennial theology, Finney often said that "the great business of the church is to reform the world." Dwight L. Moody, on the other hand, saw little hope for society. As a premillennialist he pictured the world as a wrecked ship: "God had commissioned Christians to use their lifeboats to rescue every man they could."

This shift in the relationship between revivalism and reform, present in Moody and more pronounced in Billy Sunday, has been characterized by evangelical scholars as "the great reversal." Beginning at the end of the nineteenth century and continuing past the midpoint of the twentieth century, the social implications of the gospel were neglected, sometimes abandoned, and most often declared to be of secondary importance by those who called themselves conservatives or fundamentalists. Groups that had hitherto supported social reform retreated into a posture where the primary concern after conversion was the purity of individuals rather than justice in society.

At the same time, however, a movement was on the rise which challenged this uncoupling of evangelism and reform, the social gospel. Born in post-Civil War America, growing to maturity in the era of progressivism, the impact of the social gospel continued long after its formal demise following World War I. The social gospel has been defined by one of its adherents as "the application of the teaching of Jesus and the total message of the Christian salvation to society, the economic life, and social institutions... as well as to individuals." Interacting with the changing realities of an increasingly industrialized and urbanized nation, the social gospel viewed itself as a crusade for justice and righteousness in all areas of the common life.

Walter Rauschenbusch was its foremost theologian, and his own pilgrimage is typical. Reared in the piety of a German Baptist minister's family, Rauschenbusch began his first charge in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City. Encountering conditions that stifled the lives of his people, he wrote that Hell's Kitchen "was not a safe place for saved souls." This experience forced Rauschenbusch to return to the Bible in search of resources for a more viable ministry. He discovered there both in the prophets and in the teaching of Jesus the dynamic concept of the kingdom of God was left undeveloped by individualistic theology," so that "the original teaching of our Lord has become an incongruous element in so-called evangelical theology."

The discoveries of Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, and other social gospel leaders, however, helped exacerbate a deep division that was developing within American Protestantism. Because the social gospel was closely identified with theological liberalism, a popular logic developed whereby conservatives tended to reject social action as part of their rejection of liberalism. As a matter of record, not all social gospelers were liberals and not all liberals were social gospelers. Indeed, Rauschenbusch characterized himself as an "evangelical in their adherence to personal faith and piety, but liberal in their openness to critical biblical studies and their insistence on a social ministry based on the social conception of sin which demanded social action beyond individual acts of benevolence.

Recent Discussion

In the contemporary period there are numerous attempts to return to a balance of individual and social emphasis in the Christian faith. Carl F.H. Henry, in The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947), decried the lack of social compassion among conservatives. Further, the civil rights crisis and the Vietnam war pricked the consciences of younger evangelicals who wondered whether their spiritual parents had not accommodated their faith to an American "civil religion." The last two decades have seen a rebirth of social concern. Evangelicals have been rediscovering their roots in Finney and earlier evangelical leadership. The Chicago Declaration of 1973 acknowledged that "we have not proclaimed or demostrated [God's] justice to an unjust American society." Today organizations such as Evangelicals for Social Action and journals such as Sojourners and The Other Side advocate the involvement of evangelicals in all aspects of society.

A new perspective is the liberation theologies emanating from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The demand is for theological reflection that begins, not in the classroom, but in the midst of the poverty and injustice that defines the human situation for many of the peoples of the world today. The call is for a theology of "praxis" (practice). Many evangelicals recoil from liberation theologies because of the use of Marxist analysis. But others believe that the affirmation that God is on the side of the poor is a starting place for yet more faithful understandings of the meaning of discipleship. Although the Third World liberation theologians state that their programs cannot be directly translated to North America, at the same time there has been fruitful interchange with black, feminist, and other theologians working out the meaning of justice.

In summary, historical study helps focus present options. As for priority the question remains: Are the social implications equal, secondary, or prior to the individual implications of the gospel? Continuing discussion about the nature and extent of social ministry revolves around such options as (1) individual and/or social action; (2) charity and/or justice. However one chooses, the challenge is to translate love and justice into meaningful strategies so that proclamation becomes demonstration.

R C White, Jr
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

D.W. Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage; G. Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation; D.O. Moberg, The Great Reversal: Evangelism versus Social Concern; W. Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel; W. Scott, Bring Forth Justice; R.J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger; T.L. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform; J. Sobrino, Christology at the Crossroads; J. Wallis, Agenda for Biblical People; R.C. White, Jr., and C.H. Hopkins, The Social Gospel, Religion and Reform in Changing America; J.H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus.

Gospel and Gospels

Catholic Information

The word Gospel usually designates a written record of Christ's words and deeds. It is very likely derived from the Anglo-Saxon god (good) and spell (to tell), and is generally treated as the exact equivalent of the Greek euaggelion (eu well, aggello, I bear a message), and the Latin Evangelium, which has passed into French, German, Italian, and other modern languages. The Greek euaggelion originally signified the "reward of good tidings" given to the messenger, and subsequently "good tidings". Its other important meanings will be set forth in the body of the present general article on the Gospels.

(1) Titles of the Gospels

The first four historical books of the New Testament are supplied with titles (Euaggelion kata Matthaion, Euaggelion kata Markon, etc.), which, however ancient, do not go back to the respective authors of those sacred writings. The Canon of Muratori, Clement of Alexandria, and St. Irenæus bear distinct witness to the existence of those headings in the latter part of the second century of our era. Indeed, the manner in which Clement (Strom., I, xxi), and St. Irenæus (Adv. Hær., III, xi, 7) employ them implies that, at that early date, our present titles to the Gospels had been in current use for some considerable time. Hence, it may be inferred that they were prefixed to the evangelical narratives as early as the first part of that same century. That, however, they do not go back to the first century of the Christian era, or at least that they are not original, is a position generally held at the present day. It is felt that since they are similar for the four Gospels, although the same Gospels were composed at some interval from each other, those titles were not framed, and consequently not prefixed to each individual narrative, before the collection of the four Gospels was actually made. Besides, as well pointed out by Prof. Bacon, "the historical books of the New Testament differ from its apocalyptic and epistolary literature, as those of the Old Testament differ from its prophecy, in being invariably anonymous, and for the same reason. Prophecies whether in the earlier or in the later sense, and letters, to have authority, must be referable to some individual; the greater his name, the better. But history was regarded as a common possession. Its facts spoke for themselves. Only as the springs of common recollection began to dwindle, and marked differences to appear between the well-informed and accurate Gospels and the untrustworthy . . . did it become worth while for the Christian teacher or apologist to specify whether the given representation of the current tradition was 'according to' this or that special compiler, and to state his qualifications". It thus appears that the present titles of the Gospels are not traceable to the Evangelists themselves.

The first word common to the headings of our four Gospels is Euaggelion, some meanings of which remain still to be set forth. The word, in the New Testament, has the specific meaning of "the good news of the kingdom" (cf. Matthew 4:23; Mark 1:15). In that sense, which may be considered as primary from the Christian standpoint, Euaggelion denotes the good tidings of salvation announced to the world in connexion with Jesus Christ, and, in a more general way, the whole revelation of Redemption by Christ (cf. Matthew 9:35; 24:14; etc.; Mark 1:14; 13:10; 16:15; Acts 20:24; Romans 1:1, 9, 16; 10:16; etc.). This was, of course, the sole meaning connected with the word, so long as no authentic record of the glad tidings of salvation by Christ had been drawn up. In point of fact, it remained the only one in use even after such written records had been for some time received in the Christian Church: as there could be but one Gospel, that is, but one revelation of salvation by Jesus Christ, so the several records of it were not regarded as several Gospels, but only as distinct accounts of one and the same Gospel. Gradually, however, a derived meaning was coupled with the word Euaggelion. Thus, in his first Apology (c. lxvi), St. Justin speaks of the "Memoirs of the Apostles which are called Euaggelia", clearing referring, in this way, not to the substance of the Evangelical history, but to the books themselves in which it is recorded. It is true that in this passage of St. Justin we have the first undoubted use of the term in that derived sense. But as the holy Doctor gives us to understand that in his day the word Euaggelion had currently that meaning, it is only natural to think that it had been thus employed for some time before. It seems, therefore, that Zahn is right in claiming that the use of the term Euaggelion, as denoting a written record of Christ's words and deeds, goes as far back as the beginning of the second century of the Christian era.

The second word common to the titles of the canonical Gospels is the preposition kata, "according to", the exact import of which has long been a matter of discussion among Biblical scholars. Apart from various secondary meanings connected with that Greek particle, two principal significations have been ascribed to it. Many authors have taken it to mean not "written by", but "drawn up according to the conception of", Matthew, Mark, etc. In their eyes, the titles of our Gospels were not intended to indicate authorship, but to state the authority guaranteeing what is related, in about the same way as "the Gospel according to the Hebrews", or "the Gospel according to the Egyptians", does not mean the Gospel written by the Hebrews or the Egyptians, but that peculiar form of Gospel which either the Hebrews or the Egyptians had accepted. Most scholars, however, have preferred to regard the preposition kata as denoting authorship, pretty much in the same way as, in Diodorus Siculus, the History of Herodotus is called He kath Herodoton historia. At the present day it is generally admitted that, had the titles to the canonical Gospels been intended to set forth the ultimate authority or guarantor, and not to indicate the writer, the Second Gospel would, in accordance with the belief of primitive times, have been called "the Gospel according to Peter", and the third, "the Gospel according to Paul". At the same time it is rightly felt that these titles denote authorship, with a peculiar shade of meaning which is not conveyed by the titles prefixed to the Epistles of St. Paul, the Apocalypse of St. John, etc; The use of the genitive case in the latter titles Paulou Epistolai, Apokalypsis Ioannou, etc.) has no other object than that of ascribing the contents of such works to the writer whose name they actually bear. The use of the preposition kata (according to), on the contrary, while referring the composition of the contents of the First Gospel to St. Matthew, of those of the second to St. Mark, etc., implies that practically the same contents, the same glad tidings or Gospel, have been set forth by more than one narrator. Thus, "the Gospel according to Matthew" is equivalent to the Gospel history in the form in which St. Matthew put it in writing; "the Gospel according to Mark" designates the same Gospel history in another form, viz, in that in which St. Mark presented it in writing, etc. (cf. Maldonatus, "In quatuor Evangelistas", cap .i).

(2) Number of the Gospels

The name gospel, as designating a written account of Christ's words and deeds, has been, and is still, applied to a large number of narratives connected with Christ's life, which circulated both before and after the composition of our Third Gospel (cf. Luke 1:1-4). The titles of some fifty such works have come down to us, a fact which shows the intense interest which centred, at an early date, in the Person and work of Christ. it is only, however, in connexion with twenty of these "gospels" that some information has been preserved. Their names, as given by Harnack (Chronologie, I, 589 sqq.), are as follows: -

1-4. The Canonical Gospels

5. The Gospel according to the Hebrews.

6. The Gospel of Peter.

7. The Gospel according to the Egyptians

8. The Gospel of Matthias.

9. The Gospel of Philip.

10. The Gospel of Thomas.

11. The Proto-Evangelium of James.

12. The Gospel of Nicodemus (Acta Pilati).

13. The Gospel of the Twelve Apostles.

14. The Gospel of Basilides.

15. The Gospel of Valentinus.

16. The Gospel of Marcion.

17. The Gospel of Eve.

18. The Gospel of Judas.

19. The writing Genna Marias.

20. The Gospel Teleioseos.

Despite the early date which is sometimes claimed for some of these works, it is not likely that any one of them, outside our canonical Gospels, should be reckoned among the attempts at narrating the life of Christ, of which St. Luke speaks in the prologue to his Gospel. Most of them, as far as can be made out are late productions, the apocryphal character of which is generally admitted by contemporary scholars (see APOCRYPHA).

It is indeed impossible, at the present day, to describe the precise manner in which out of the numerous works ascribed to some Apostle, or simply bearing the name of gospel, only four, two of which are not ascribed to Apostles, came to be considered as sacred and canonical. It remains true, however, that all the early testimony which has a distinct bearing on the number of the canonical Gospels recognizes four such Gospels and none besides. Thus, Eusebius (died 340), when sorting out the universally received books of the Canon, in distinction from those which some have questioned writes: "And here, among the first, must be placed the holy quaternion of the Gospels", while he ranks the "Gospel according to the Hebrews" among the second, that is, among the disputed writings (Hist. Eccl., III, xxv). Clement of Alexandria (died about 220) and Tertullian (died 220) were familiar with our four Gospels, frequently quoting and commenting on them. The last-named writer speaks also of the Old Latin version known to himself and to his readers, and by so doing carries us back beyond his time. The saintly Bishop of Lyons, Irenæus (died 202), who had known Polycarp in Asia Minor, not only admits and quotes our four Gospels, but argues that they must be just four, no more and no less. He says: "It is not possible that the Gospels be either more or fewer than they are. For since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout the world, and the pillar and ground of the Church is the Gospel and the Spirit of life; it is fitting that we should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side and vivifying our flesh. . . The living creatures are quadriform, and the Gospel is quadriform, as is also the course followed by the Lord" (Adv. Hær., III, xi, 8). About the time when St. Irenæus gave this explicit testimony to our four Gospels, the Canon of Muratori bore likewise witness to them, as did also the Peshito and other early Syriac translations, and the various Coptic versions of the New Testament. The same thing must be said with regard to the Syriac harmony of the canonical Gospels, which was framed by St. Justin's disciple, Tatian, and which is usually referred to under its Greek name of Diatessaron (To dia tessaron Euaggelion). The recent discovery of this work has allowed Harnack to infer, from some of its particulars, that it was based on a still earlier harmony, that made by St. Hippolytus of Antioch, of our four Gospels. It has also set at rest the vexed question as to St. Justin's use of the canonical Gospels. "For since Tatian was a disciple of Justin, it is inconceivable that he should have worked on quite different Gospels from those of his teacher, while each held the Gospels he used to be the books of primary importance" (Adeney). Indeed, even before the discovery of Tatian's "Diatessaron", an unbiased study of Justin's authentic writings had made it clear that the holy doctor used exclusively our canonical Gospels under the name of Memoirs of the Apostles.

Of these testimonies of the second century two are particularly worthy of notice, viz, those of St. Justin and St. Irenæus. As the former writer belongs to the first part of that century, and speaks of the canonical Gospels as a well-known and fully authentic collection, it is only natural to think that at his time of writing (about A. D. 145) the same Gospels, and they only, had been recognized as sacred records of Christ's life, and that they had been regarded as such at least as early as the beginning of the second century of our era. The testimony of the latter apologist is still more important. "The very absurdity of his reasoning testifies to the well-established position attained in his day by the four Gospels, to the exclusion of all others. Irenæus' bishop was Potinus who lived to the age of 90, and Irenæus had known Polycarp in Asia Minor. Here are links of connexion with the past which go back beyond the beginning of the second century" (Adeney).

In the writings of the Apostolic Fathers one does not, indeed, meet with unquestionable evidence in favour of only four canonical Gospels. But this is only what one might expect from the works of men who lived in the very century in which these inspired records were composed, and in which the word Gospel was yet applied to the glad tidings of salvation, and not to the written accounts thereof.

(3) Chief Differences between Canonical and Apocryphal Gospels. From the outset, the four Gospels, the sacred character of which was thus recognized very early, differed in several respects from the numerous uncanonical Gospels which circulated during the first centuries of the Church. First of all, they commended themselves by their tone of simplicity and truthfulness, which stood in striking contrast with the trivial, absurd, or manifestly legendary character of many of those uncanonical productions. In the next place, they had an earlier origin than most of their apocryphal rivals, and indeed many of the latter productions were directly based on the canonical Gospels. A third feature in favour of our canonical records of Christ's life was the purity of their teachings, dogmatic and moral, over against the Jewish, Gnostic, or other heretical views with which not a few of the apocryphal gospels were tainted, and on account of which these unsound writings found favour among heretical bodies and, on the contrary, discredit in the eyes of Catholics. Lastly, and more particularly, the canonical Gospels were regarded as of Apostolic authority, two of them being ascribed to the Apostles St. Matthew and St. John, respectively, and two to St. Mark and St. Luke, the respective companions of St. Peter and St. Paul. Many other gospels indeed claimed Apostolic authority, but to none of them was this claim universally allowed in the early Church. The only apocryphal work which was at all generally received, and relied upon, in addition to our four canonical Gospels, is the "Gospel according to the Hebrews". It is a well-known fact that St. Jerome, speaking of this Gospel under the name of "The Gospel according to the Nazarenes", regards it as the Hebrew original of our Greek canonical Gospel according to St. Matthew. But, as far as can be judged from its fragments which have come down to us, it has no right to originality as compared with our first canonical Gospel. At a very early date, too, it was treated as devoid of Apostolic authority, and St. Jerome himself, who states that he had its Aramaic text at his disposal, does not assign it a place side by side with our canonical Gospels: all the authority which he ascribes to it is derived from his persuasion that it was the original text of our First Gospel, and not a distinct Gospel over and above the four universally received from time immemorial in the Catholic Church.

(4) Order of the Gospels

While the ancient lists, versions, and ecclesiastical writers agree in admitting the canonical character of only four Gospels, they are far from being at one with regard to the order of these sacred records of Christ's words and deeds. In early Christian literature, the canonical Gospels are given in no less than eight orders, besides the one (St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, St. John) with which we are familiar. The variations bear chiefly on the place given to St. John, then, secondarily, on the respective positions of St. Mark and St. Luke. St. John passes from the fourth place to the third to the second, or even to the first. As regards St. Luke and St. Mark, St. Luke's Gospel is often placed first, doubtless as being the longer of the two, but at times also second, perhaps to bring it in immediate connexion with the Acts, which are traditionally ascribed to the author of our Third Gospel.

Of these various orders, the one which St. Jerome embodied in the Latin Vulgate, whence it passed into our modern translations, and even into the Greek editions of the New Testament, is unquestionably the most ancient. It is found in the Canon of Muratori, in St. Irenæus, in St. Gregory of Nazianzus, in St. Athanasius, in the lists of the sacred books drawn up by the Councils of Laodicea and of Carthage, and also in the oldest Greek uncial Manuscripts.: the Vatican, the Sinaitic, and the Alexandrine. Its origin is best accounted for by the supposition that whoever formed the Gospel collection wished to arrange the Gospels in accordance with the respective date which tradition assigned to their composition. Thus, the first place was given to St. Matthew's Gospel, because a very early tradition described the work as originally written in Hebrew, that is, in the Aramaic language of Palestine. This, it was thought, proved that it had been composed for the Jewish believers in the Holy Land, at a date when the Apostles had not yet started to preach the glad tidings of salvation outside of Palestine, so that it must be prior to the other Gospels written in Greek and for converts in Greek-speaking countries. In like manner, it is clear that St. John's Gospel was assigned the last place, because tradition at a very early date looked upon it as the last in the order of time. As to St. Mark and St. Luke, tradition ever spoke of them as posterior to St. Matthew and anterior to St. John, so that their Gospels were naturally placed between those of St. Matthew and St. John. In this way, as it seems, was obtained the present general order of the Gospels in which we find, at the beginning, an Apostle as author; at the end, the other Apostle; between the two, those who have to derive their authority from Apostles.

The numerous orders which are different from the one most ancient and most generally received can easily be explained by the fact that after the formation of the collection in which the four Gospels were for the first time united, these writings continued to be diffused, all four separately, in the various Churches, and might thus be found differently placed in the collections designed for public reading. It is likewise easy in most cases to make out the special reason for which a particular grouping of the four Gospels was adopted. The very ancient order, for instance, which places the two Apostles (St. Matthew, St. John) before the two disciples of Apostles (St. Mark, St. Luke) may be easily accounted for by the desire of paying a special honour to the Apostolic dignity. Again, such an ancient order as Matthew, Mark, John, Luke, bespeaks the intention of coupling each Apostle with an Apostolic assistant, and perhaps also that of bringing St. Luke nearer to the Acts, etc.

(5) Classification of the Gospels

The present order of the Gospels has the twofold advantage of not separating from one another those Evangelical records (St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke) whose mutual resemblances are obvious and striking, and of placing at the end of the list of the Gospels the narrative (that of St. John) whose relations with the other three is that of dissimilarity rather than of likeness. It thus lends itself well to the classification of the Gospels which is now generally admitted by Biblical scholars. St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke are usually grouped together, and designated under the common name of the Synoptic Gospels. They derive this name from the fact that their narratives may be arranged and harmonized, section by section, so as to allow the eye to realize at a glance the numerous passages which are common to them, and also the portions which are peculiar either to only two, or even to only one, of them. The case stands very differently with regard to our Fourth Gospel. As it narrates but a few incidents in common with the Synoptists, and differs from them in respect to style, language, general plan, etc., its chief parts refuse to be included in a harmony such as may be framed by means of the first three Gospels. While, therefore, the Synoptic narratives are naturally put together into one group, St. John's record is rightly considered as standing apart and as, so to speak, making up a class by itself (see SYNOPTICS).

(6) The Gospels and the Oral Gospel

All recent critics admit that the contents of our four Gospels are intimately connected with more primitive accounts of Christ's life, which may be described, in a general way, as an Oral Gospel. They are well aware that Jesus Himself did not consign to writing His own teachings, and directed His Apostles not to write, but to preach, the Gospel to their fellow-men. They regard as an undoubted fact that these first disciples of the Master, faithful to the mission which He had entrusted to them, began, from the day of Pentecost on, boldly to declare by word of mouth what they had seen and heard (cf. Acts 4:2), considering as a special duty of theirs "the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:4). It is plain, too, that those whom the Apostles immediately selected to help them in the discharge of this most important mission had to be, like the Apostles themselves, able to bear witness to the life and teachings of Christ (cf. Acts 1:21 sq.). The substance of the Evangelical narratives would thus be repeated viva voce by the early teachers of Christianity, before any one of them bethought himself to set it down in writing. It can be readily seen that such Apostolic teaching was then inculcated in words which tended to assume a stereotyped form of expression, similar to that which we find in the Synoptic Gospels. In like manner, also, one can easily realize how the Apostles would not be concerned with the exact order of events narrated, and would not aim at completeness in telling what they "had seen and heard". Thus, according to this opinion, was gradually formed what may be called the "Oral Gospel", that is, a relation of Christ's words and deeds, parallel, in respect to matter and form, to our canonical Gospels. In view of this, critics have endeavoured to find out the general contents of this Oral Gospel by means of the second part of the Book of the Acts, by a study of the doctrinal contents of the Epistles of St. Paul, and more particularly by a close comparison of the Synoptic narratives; and it may be freely said that their efforts in that direction have met with considerable success. As regards, however, the precise relation which should be admitted between our canonical Gospels and the Oral Gospel, there is still, among contemporary scholars, a variety of views which will be set forth and examined in the special articles on the individual Gospels. Suffice it to say, here, that the theory which regards the canonical Gospels as embodying, in substance, the oral teaching of the Apostles concerning the words and deeds of Christ is in distinct harmony with the Catholic position, which affirms both the historical value of these sacred records and the authoritative character of the Apostolic traditions, whether these are actually consigned to writing or simply enforced by the ever living voice of the Church.

(7) Divergences of the Gospels

The existence of numerous and, at times, considerable differences between the four canonical Gospels is a fact which has long been noticed and which all scholars readily admit. Unbelievers of all ages have greatly exaggerated the importance of this fact, and have represented many of the actual variations between the Evangelical narratives as positive contradictions, in order to disprove the historical value and the inspired character of the sacred records of Christ's life. Over against this contention, sometimes maintained with a great display of erudition, the Church of God, which is "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15), has always proclaimed her belief in the historical accuracy and consequent real harmony of the canonical Gospels; and her doctors (notably Eusebius of Cæsarea, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine) and commentators have invariably professed that belief. As can readily be seen, variations are naturally to be expected in four distinct, and in many ways independent, accounts of Christ's words and deeds, so that their presence, instead of going against, rather makes for the substantial value of the Evangelical narratives. From among the various answers which have been given to the alleged contradictions of the Evangelists we simply mention the following. Many a time the variations are due to the fact that not one but two really distinct events are described, or two distinct sayings recorded, in the parallel passages of the Gospels. At other times, as is indeed very often the case, the supposed contradictions, when closely examined, turn out to be simply differences naturally entailed, and therefore distinctly accounted for, by the literary methods of the sacred writers, and more particularly, by the respective purpose of the Evangelists in setting forth Christ's words and deeds. Lastly, and in a more general way, the Gospels should manifestly be treated with the same fairness and equity as are invariably used with regard to other historical records.

To borrow an illustration from classical literature, the 'Memoirs' of the Apostles are treated [by unbelievers] by a method which no critic would apply to the 'Memoirs' of Xenophon. The [Rationalistic] scholar admits the truthfulness of the different pictures of Socrates which were drawn by the philosopher, the moralist, and the man of the world, and combines them into one figure instinct with a noble life, half hidden and half revealed, as men viewed it from different points; but he seems often to forget his art when he studies the records of the Saviour's work. Hence it is that superficial differences are detached from the context which explains them. It is urged as an objection that parallel narratives are not identical. Variety of details is taken for discrepancy. The evidence may be wanting which might harmonize narratives apparently discordant; but experience shows that it is as rash to deny the probability of reconciliation as it is to fix the exact method by which it may be made out. If, as a general rule, we can follow the law which regulates the characteristic peculiarities of each Evangelist, and see in what way they answer to different aspects of one truth, and combine as complementary elements in the full representation of it, we may be well contented to acquiesce in the existence of some difficulties which at present admit of no exact solution, though they may be a necessary consequence of that independence of the Gospels which, in other cases, is the source of their united power (Westcott).

Publication information Written by Francis E. Gigot. Transcribed by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VI. Published 1909. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York


Catholic authors: MEIGNAN, Les Evangiles et la Critique (Paris, 1870); FILLION, Introd. gén. aux Evangiles (Paris, 1888); TROCHON ET LESÉTRE, Introd. à l'Ecriture sainte, III (Paris, 1890); BATIFFOL, Six leçons sur les Evangiles (Paris, 1897); CORNELY, Introd. sp. (Paris, 1897); JACQUIER, Hist. des Liv. du N. T., II (Paris, 1905); VERDUNOY, L'Evangile (Paris, 1907); BRASSAC, Manuel biblique, III (Paris, 1908). -

Non-Catholic: WESTCOTT, Introd. to the Study of the Gospels (New York, 1887); WILKINSON, Four Lectures on the Early History of the Gospels (London, 1898); GODET, Introd. to the New Test. (tr. New York, 1899); ADENEY, Biblical Introduction (New York, 1904)

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