What is a Gospel?

The Bible contains four “Gospels,” located at the start of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, named after their authors. These four long narratives serve as the primary source documents for what we know about the life and teaching of Jesus. 

A page of the P75 papyrus showing the end of Luke’s Gospel and the beginning of John’s Gospel.

The English word gospel comes from the Old English godspell, a translation of the Greek noun euangelion, meaning “glad tidings” or “good news,” in common use around the time of Jesus. In the first century B.C., for example, the Roman Emperor Augustus was hailed as a “saviour” for ending wars and bring peace to the empire.

The Priene Inscription from Asia Minor proclaims Augustus’s birth as the birth of a god and the beginning of “good news” for the world. The word euangelion was also used in the context of a messenger bringing a report of victory in battle. A euangelion was good news of some significance, usually associated with an announcement or celebration.

Several New Testament writers use this word for the message of Jesus. In 1 Thessalonians 1:5, where Paul describes the early Christian preaching about Jesus, he calls it euangelion. By the time Mark is writing, he describes his narrative as “The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus Christ” (Mk 1:1). No books had ever before been called “Gospels.” The early church soon came to call these four accounts of the life of Jesus “Gospels” – written versions of the oral proclamation of the apostles and other early Christian leaders.

These four Gospels have proved so significant, and distinctive, that some biblical scholars use the term gospel to describe the distinctive genre of literature they portray. The term relates to their literary character, and to their relationship to other first-century Greco-Roman and Jewish writings. 

Recognising the Gospels as a specific genre of literature also reminds us that their literary characteristics shape each writer’s portrayal of Jesus, the central character.

Genre forms a ‘contract’ or agreement, often unspoken or unwritten, or even unconscious, between an author and a reader by which the author composes according to a set of expectations, and the reader interprets the work following the same conventions, which provide an initial idea of what to expect. DJG, 337.


Next study: Basic features of the four Gospels

Rod Benson is an ordained Baptist minister presently working as Research Support Officer at Moore Theological College, Sydney. He enjoys preaching, cooking, snorkeling, and reading a good book. These notes were written by Rod Benson for a small group study on the Gospel of Luke, March 2021. Comments welcome.

For more information on Papyrus P75, see this Wikipedia page and this Solidarity webpage.

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