What Is the Gospel? Biblical Terms Explained | New Testament Studies

The term “gospel” originally referred to the content of Christian preaching as expressed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7: that just as the Old Testament scriptures foretold, Christ died for our sins, was buried, rose on the third day and appeared to multiple individuals and groups in his resurrected form. The Gospel books of the New Testament present this gospel message in the Hellenistic literary form of a biography or bios, narrating the life of Jesus. [Scholars use the capital word “Gospel” to designate these books and the lowercase “gospel” to indicate the general message.] These ancient Hellenistic biographies should not be confused with our modern biographies. The four Christian Gospels follow the pattern of an ancient bios by focusing on the public life of Jesus using anecdotes, stories, speeches, and sayings taken from both oral and written sources that highlight his character. 

One of the most unique features of the New Testament is the fact that it contains not one bios of Jesus, but four separate Gospels with a large amount of overlapping material. The earliest Greek titles that appear on the manuscripts of these four books are “the Gospel according to…” followed by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John respectively. Each Gospel is written within a theological framework with an evangelical purpose and yet tied and tailored to a specific life situation of a community. The general consensus among New Testament scholars is that these communities were already well-developed Christian communities operating decades after the apostle Paul’s ministry and his letters. The goals in addressing these later communities included but were not limited to fostering a belief in Jesus as the Messiah, Lord, and Savior, assuring the certainty upon which their faith rests thereby preserving the faith itself, and affecting a life-change within the various communities as they responded appropriately to their respective environments. 

The early church considered each Gospel to be highlighting a different character trait of Jesus. To reflect this in a widely illiterate age, the church developed the ancient equivalent of avatars for each Gospel.  Mark was the winged lion; Luke was the winged ox; Matthew was the winged man; and John was an eagle.  The choice of these particular images owes itself to a passage in the book of Revelation (4:6-8) that describes God’s throne as surrounded by these four creatures.  

The diversity among the Gospels from different authors aimed at different early church communities has often made Christians uncomfortable, leading to frequent efforts over the centuries to harmonize them into one coherent story, even in the earliest Christian period. The Diatessaron (AD 150) and the Gospel of Marcion (AD 135-165) were two such early attempts at harmonization. The Church historically, however, resisted every effort towards harmonization in favor of the four distinct Gospels. Nevertheless, there was a recognition of a certain value in examining the different Gospel descriptions of the same episode or saying in Jesus’s life for one reason or another. To allow for that Eusebius (AD 265-339) developed a set of ten tables or canons as a reference system between the four Gospels, based in part on the “Ammonian Sections” that one Ammonius of Alexander had previously created, which were similarly deemed to not adequately respect the integrity of the four Gospels. These canons created an ancient reference system for quickly locating Gospel parallels.  

These canons would take up the first ten or so pages of a Greek Gospel codex and scribes often decorated these pages very ornately.  Canon 1 contains four columns and covers the parallels in all four Gospels, canons two through four each contain three columns and cover the parallels between three of the Gospels and canons five through nine each contain two columns and cover the parallels between two of the Gospels.  Every distinct section of each Gospel of the Greek text has a number, so the Gospel of Matthew contains 355 separate sections all numbered. These sections can be very large or very small. For instance, the section of Matthew where Pilate asks the crowd whether to release Barabbas or Jesus is just one verse marked as section 328. In Canon 1, if you scroll down the Matthew column to the number 328, you can then follow across the other columns and see that a similar section (in this case a verse) about Pilate releasing one prisoner is section 206 in Mark, section 314 in Luke and section 194 in John. 

One observation that becomes immediately apparent using the Eusebian canons or any other Gospel parallel reference system, is that the Gospel of John has a very distinctive character from the other three Gospels. But what is most surprising is not how different the Gospel of John is from the other three, but rather, how similar the other three Gospels are to one another.  The episodes, sayings, order of the material and even phrasing of the Greek is so similar that church theologians as early as Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) recognized that there must have been some sort of literary dependence between the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke that does not exist with the Gospel of John. Scholars and theologians tend to study Matthew, Mark and Luke together as a group, called the Synoptic Gospels, leaving the Gospel of John to be studied in different ways. Recognition of this literary dependency and which Gospel is dependent upon the other (and how) is called the Synoptic Problem. 

The four Gospels have proved to be powerful instruments in the church for not only passing on the story of the life of Christ but also for impacting beliefs and behaviors for over two thousand years. Their preeminence in the New Testament is no coincidence. The heart of the Christian message, “the gospel” may be found within the four Gospels. 

  1.  The summary provided here on genre relies on Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018), 96-99. 
  2.  See Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, 3d ed., The Biblical Resource Series (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018).; Richard A. Burridge, “Biography As the Gospels’ Literary Genre,” RCatT 38 (2013): 9-30. 
  3.  Summary taken from Burridge, “Biography As the Gospels’ Literary Genre,” 17.
  4.  The Gospel of Marcion is “known only through quotations of others (esp. Tertullian Adv. Marc. 4; Ephiphanius Adv. haer. 42)” (Ronald V. Huggins, “Gospel of Marcion,” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 856.). 
  5.  For Eusebius’ own explanation of the weaknesses of Ammonius’ system and the introduction of his own method of canons, see Eusebius, “To Carpianus, on the Gospel Canons,” at https://www.ccel.org/ccel/pearse/morefathers/files/eusebius_letter_to_carpianus.htm. The Greek text of Eusebius’ letter  is found in Barbara Aland et al., eds., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th ed. (Stuttgart: Deuche Bibelgesellschaft, 2016), 89-90. This is followed by the ten canons on pp. 90-94. 

Sources Cited

Aland, Barbara, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, and Bruce M. Metzger, eds. Novum Testamentum Graece. 28th ed. Stuttgart: Deuche Bibelgesellschaft, 2016.

Burridge, Richard A. “Biography As the Gospels’ Literary Genre.” RCatT 38 (2013): 9-30.

__________. What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. 3d ed. The Biblical Resource Series. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018.

Huggins, Ronald V. “Gospel of Marcion.” In Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Edited by David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Klein, William W., Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. 3d ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.

Powell, Mark Allan. Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey. 2d ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018.

Stein, Robert H. Studying the Synoptic Gospels: Origin and Interpretation. 2d ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001.

Watson, Francis. Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.