Gospel originally meant the Christian message itself, but in the 2nd century it came to be used for the books in which the message was set out. The four canonical gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — were written between AD 70 and 100, building on older sources and traditions, and each gospel has its own distinctive understanding of Jesus and his divine role. All four are anonymous (the modern names were added in the 2nd century), and it is almost certain that none were written by an eyewitness. They are the main source of information on the life of Jesus as searched for in the quest for the historical Jesus. Modern scholars are cautious of relying on them unquestioningly, but critical study attempts to distinguish the original ideas of Jesus from those of the later authors. Many non-canonical gospels were also written, all later than the four, and all, like them, advocating the particular theological views of their authors.
The Gospel of Mark probably dates from c. AD 66–70, Matthew and Luke around AD 85–90, and John AD 90–110. Despite the traditional descriptions, all four are anonymous, and none were written by eyewitnesses. Like the rest of the New Testament, they were written in Greek.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, the first gospel to be written, 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 (Luke). 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.
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.
The four gospels share a story in which the earthly career of Jesus culminates in his death and resurrection, an event of crucial redemptive significance, but are inconsistent in detail. John and the three synoptics in particular present completely different pictures of Jesus’ career. John has no baptism, no temptation, no transfiguration, and lacks the Lord’s Supper and stories of Jesus’ ancestry, birth, and childhood. Jesus’s career in the synoptics takes up a single year while in John it takes three, with the cleansing of the Temple at the beginning of his ministry while in the synoptics it happens at the end, and in the synoptics the Last Supper takes place as a Passover meal, while in John it happens on the day before Passover.
Each gospel has its own distinctive understanding of Jesus and his divine role. Mark never calls Jesus “God” or claims that Jesus existed prior to his earthly life, never mentions a virgin birth (the author apparently believes that Jesus had a normal human parentage and birth), and makes no attempt to trace Jesus’ ancestry back to King David or Adam. Crucially, Mark originally had no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, 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 may have known of the tradition. Matthew reinterprets Mark, stressing Jesus’ teachings as much as his acts and making subtle changes to the narrative in order to stress his divine nature – Mark’s “young man” who appears at Jesus’ tomb, for example, 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 his 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, which he apparently felt reflected poorly on the disciples and painted Jesus too much like a magician. John, the most overtly theological, is the first to make Christological judgements outside the context of the narrative of Jesus’s life.
The synoptic gospels represent Jesus as an exorcist and healer who preached in parables about the coming Kingdom of God. He preached first in Galilee and later in Jerusalem, where he cleansed the temple. He states that he offers no sign as proof (Mark) or only the sign of Jonah (Matthew and Luke). In Mark, apparently written with a Roman audience in mind, Jesus is a heroic man of action, given to powerful emotions, including agony. In Matthew, apparently written for a Jewish audience, Jesus is repeatedly called out as the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy. In Luke, apparently written for gentiles, Jesus is especially concerned with the poor. Luke emphasizes the importance of prayer and the action of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’s life and in the Christian community. Jesus appears as a stoic supernatural being, unmoved even by his own crucifixion. Like Matthew, Luke insists that salvation offered by Christ is for all, and not only for the Jews. The Gospel of John is the only gospel to call Jesus God, and in contrast to Mark, where Jesus hides his identity as messiah, in John he openly proclaims it. It represents Jesus as an incarnation of the eternal Word (Logos), who spoke no parables, talked extensively about himself, and did not explicitly refer to a Second Coming. Jesus preaches in Jerusalem, launching his ministry with the cleansing of the temple. He performs several miracles as signs, most of them not found in the synoptics. The Gospel of John ends:(21:25) “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.”
Genre and historical reliability
The consensus among modern scholars is that the gospels are a subset of the ancient genre of bios, or biography. Ancient biographies were concerned with providing examples for readers to emulate while preserving and promoting the subject’s reputation and memory, and also included propaganda and kerygma (preaching) in their works. Mark, for example, is not biography in the modern sense but an apocalyptic history depicting Jesus caught up in events at the end of time. The Gospels present the Christian message of the second half of the first century AD, but scholars are confident that the gospels also do provide a good idea of the public career of Jesus, and that critical study can distinguish the ideas of Jesus from those of later authors and editors.
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. Matthew and Luke have frequently edited Mark to suit their own ends, and the contradictions and discrepancies between John and the synoptics make it impossible to accept both as 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.” 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.
Main article: Development of the New Testament canon
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.
Epiphanius, Jerome, and other early church fathers preserve in their writings citations from Jewish-Christian gospels. Most modern critical scholars consider that the extant citations suggest at least two and probably three distinct works, at least one of which (possibly two) closely parallels the Gospel of Matthew.
The Gospel of Thomas is mostly wisdom without narrating Jesus’s life. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says that the original may date from c. 150. It may represent a tradition independent from the canonical gospels, but that developed over a long time and was influenced by Matthew and Luke. While it can be understood in Gnostic terms, it lacks the characteristic features of Gnostic doctrine. It includes two unique parables, the parable of the empty jar and the parable of the assassin. It had been lost but was discovered, in a Coptic version dating from c. 350, at Nag Hammadi in 1945–46, and three papyri, dated to c. 200, which contain fragments of a Greek text similar to but not identical with that in the Coptic language, have also been found.
The Gospel of Peter was likely written in the first half of the 2nd century. It seems to be largely legendary, hostile toward Jews, and including docetic elements. It is a narrative gospel and is notable for asserting that Herod, not Pontius Pilate, ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. It had been lost but was rediscovered in the 19th century.
The Gospel of Judas is another controversial and ancient text that purports to tell the story of the gospel from the perspective of Judas, the disciple who is usually said to have betrayed Jesus. It paints an unusual picture of the relationship between Jesus and Judas, in that it appears to interpret Judas’s act not as betrayal, but rather as an act of obedience to the instructions of Jesus. The text was recovered from a cave in Egypt by a thief and thereafter sold on the black market until it was finally discovered by a collector who, with the help of academics from Yale and Princeton, was able to verify its authenticity. The document itself does not claim to have been authored by Judas (it is, rather, a gospel about Judas), and is known to date to at least 180 AD.
The Gospel of Mary was originally written in Greek during the 2nd century. It is often interpreted as a Gnostic text. It consists mainly of dialog between Mary Magdalene and the other disciples. It is typically not considered a gospel by scholars since it does not focus on the life of Jesus.
The Gospel of Barnabas was a gospel which is claimed to be written by Barnabas, one of the apostles. The Gospel was presumably written between the 14th and the 16th century. It contradicts the ministry of Jesus in canonical New Testament, but has clear parallels with the Islamic faith, by mentioning Muhammad as Messenger of God. It also strongly denies Pauline doctrine, and Jesus testified himself as a prophet, not the son of God.
Marcion of Sinope, c. 150, had a much shorter version of the gospel of Luke, differing substantially from what has now become the standard text of the gospel and far less oriented towards the Jewish scriptures. Marcion is said to have rejected all other gospels, including those of Matthew, Mark and especially John, which he allegedly rejected as having been forged by Irenaeus. Marcion’s critics alleged that he had edited out the portions he did not like from the then canonical version, though Marcion is said to have argued that his text was the more genuinely original one.
A genre of “Infancy gospels” (protoevangelion) arose in the 2nd century, and includes 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 absolutely different 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.
Another genre is that of the gospel harmony, 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 oldest known harmony, the Diatessaron, was compiled by Tatian around 175, and may have been intended to replace the separate gospels as an authoritative text. It was accepted for liturgical purposes for as much as two centuries in Syria, but eventually developed a reputation as being heretical and was suppressed. Subsequent harmonies were written with the more limited aim of being study guides or explanatory texts. They still use all the words and only the words of the four gospels, but the possibility of editorial error, and the loss of the individual viewpoints of the separate gospels, keeps the harmony from being canonical.
|Epistle of the Apostles||Mid 2nd c.||Anti-gnostic dialogue between Jesus and the disciples after the resurrection, emphasising the reality of the flesh and of Jesus’ fleshly resurrection|
|Gospel According to the Hebrews||Early 2nd c.||Events in the life of Jesus; Jewish-Christian, with possible gnostic overtones|
|Gospel of the Ebionites||Early 2nd c.||Jewish-Christian, embodying anti-sacrificial concerns|
|Gospel of the Egyptians||Early 2nd c.||“Salome” figures prominently; Jewish-Christian stressing asceticism|
|Gospel of Mary||2nd c.||Dialogue of Mary Magdalene with the apostles, and her vision of Jesus’ secret teachings.It was originally written in Greek and is often interpreted as a Gnostic text. It is typically not considered a gospel by scholars since it does not focus on the life of Jesus.|
|Gospel of the Nazareans||Early 2nd c.||Aramaic version of Matthew, possibly lacking the first two chapters; Jewish-Christian|
|Gospel of Nicodemus||5th c.||Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and descent into Hell|
|Gospel of Peter||Early 2nd c.||Fragmentary narrative of Jesus’ trial, death and emergence from the tomb. It seems to be hostile toward Jews, and includes docetic elements. It is a narrative gospel and is notable for asserting that Herod, not Pontius Pilate, ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. It had been lost but was rediscovered in the 19th century.|
|Gospel of Philip||3rd c.||Mystical reflections of the disciple Philip|
|Gospel of the Saviour||Late 2nd c.||Fragmentary account of Jesus’ last hours|
|Coptic Gospel of Thomas||Early 2nd c.||The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says that the original may date from c. 150. Some scholars believe that it may represent a tradition independent from the canonical gospels, but that developed over a long time and was influenced by Matthew and Luke; other scholars believe it is a later text, dependent from the canonical gospels. While it can be understood in Gnostic terms, it lacks the characteristic features of Gnostic doctrine. It includes two unique parables, the parable of the empty jar and the parable of the assassin. It had been lost but was discovered, in a Coptic version dating from c. 350, at Nag Hammadi in 1945–46, and three papyri, dated to c. 200, which contain fragments of a Greek text similar to but not identical with that in the Coptic language, have also been found.|
|Infancy Gospel of Thomas||Early 2nd c.||Miraculous deeds of Jesus between the ages of five and twelve|
|Gospel of Truth||Mid 2nd c.||Joys of Salvation|
|Papyrus Egerton 2||Early 2nd c.||Fragmentary, four episodes from the life of Jesus|
|Diatessaron||Late 2nd c.||Gospel harmony (and the first such gospel harmony) composed by Tatian; may have been intended to replace the separate gospels as an authoritative text. It was accepted for liturgical purposes for as much as two centuries in Syria, but was eventually suppressed.}}|
|Protoevangelium of James||Mid 2nd c.||Birth and early life of Mary, and birth of Jesus|
|Gospel of Marcion||Mid 2nd c.||Marcion of Sinope, c. 150, had a much shorter version of the gospel of Luke, differing substantially from what has now become the standard text of the gospel and far less oriented towards the Jewish scriptures. Marcion’s critics said that he had edited out the portions of Luke he did not like, though Marcion argued that his was the more genuinely original text. He is said to have rejected all other gospels, including those of Matthew, Mark and especially John, which he alleged had been forged by Irenaeus.|
|Secret Gospel of Mark||Uncertain||Allegedly a longer version of Mark written for an elect audience|
|Gospel of Judas||Late 2nd c.||Purports to tell the story of the gospel from the perspective of Judas, the disciple who is usually said to have betrayed Jesus. It paints an unusual picture of the relationship between Jesus and Judas, in that it appears to interpret Judas’s act not as betrayal, but rather as an act of obedience to the instructions of Jesus. The text was recovered from a cave in Egypt by a thief and thereafter sold on the black market until it was finally discovered by a collector who, with the help of academics from Yale and Princeton, was able to verify its authenticity. The document itself does not claim to have been authored by Judas (it is, rather, a gospel about Judas), and is known to date to at least 180 AD.|
|Gospel of Barnabas||14th–16th c.||Contradicts the ministry of Jesus in canonical New Testament and strongly denies Pauline doctrine, but has clear parallels with Islam, mentioning Muhammad as Messenger of God. Jesus identifies himself as a prophet, not the son of God.|