What are the gospels?

These are four books written by followers of Jesus with the intent to introduce people to Jesus.  They are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.


What does “gospel” mean?

The word used to mean a reward or present given in return for bringing good news.  Later, the word came to mean the good news itself.  source  Witherington says that the word “had not yet become a technical term for a certain kind of literature. … Not until at least the writing of the Didache is euangelion used for a certain kind of text or document.”  Mark p7  Gloag suggests that the term came into English use from Wyclife.  source


Do the authors of these books call them “gospel?”

They do not; the word “gospel” is always used to refer to the good news of the kingdom of God.  Mark, however, comes closest to calling his book a gospel when he writes: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1)  In the year ~156, Justin Martyr wrote in his first Apology:

For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread…  source


Are not these books called “The gospel according to Matthew” or “The gospel according to Mark,” etc. or in Greek κατα Μαθθαιον, κατα Μαρκαν, etc.

These superscriptions were added to the gospels in later years when the term “gospel” was then used to refer to what Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John had written.  more


Do these superscriptions also tell us who wrote these books?

They undoubtedly do.  Harman writes:

Histories of so much importance must have been delivered by Matthew, Mark, and John to the churches with which they were connected or in which they especially labored. These societies receiving the Gospels from the hands of their authors would naturally affix the authors names to them. The Gospel of Luke, delivered in person or sent to Theophilus, was known to be the writing of Luke; all the copies of that Gospel would have the name of Luke affixed as the authority for the history. Nor could these Gospels ever have been received either in the apostolic age or in that immediately succeeding it if their accounts of Christ’s acts and doctrines had not corresponded with those delivered by the apostles and other eye witnesses of Christ’s life.  How could the Gospel of Matthew have passed for his in the Christian communities which he taught unless its accounts coincided with what Matthew had taught orally?  In that case what possible motive could there be to forge a Gospel in his name?  See chapter 13 here.

Harman goes on to note that the gospel of Mark is attributed to him because the early church understood that he wrote it even though much of the content of the book depended on the testimony of Peter.  Peter, however, did not write the book; Mark did, and therefore his name is attached to it.  Farrar writes:

Let us note in passing that the names of the three first Evangelists are little likely to have suggested themselves to any forger. Any one who desired to palm upon the Church a written Gospel under the shadow of some great name, would have attributed his work to St. Peter or St. James, or one of the greater Apostles, not to the despised publican, the wavering deacon, and the Gentile physician.  source


What other conclusions can we draw from these superscriptions?

It is noteworthy that the superscriptions do not say The gospel of Matthew or The gospel of Mark.  They say, The gospel according to Matthew, Mark, etc.  This suggests that it was one gospel but related from four different men.  Thus the use of the preposition “according” to or κατα.  Gloag writes:

The oneness of the Gospels is implied by the use of the preposition κατα instead of the genitive “of.”  There are not strictly speaking four Gospels but one given in four different forms the Gospel not of but according to Matthew the Gospel according to Mark etc.


Why are the first three gospels known as the “synoptic gospels?”

This word reflects the fact that the fourth gospel is so different from the previous.  Farrar notes the following differences:

Synoptics John
Focus on Christ’s ministry in Galilee Focus on Christ’s ministry in Judea
Relate only Jesus’ final visit to Jerusalem ending in His crucifixion Relate four visits to Jerusalem before giving us Jesus’ final visit.
Most time is spent on Jesus’ miracles, parables, and addresses to the multitude Most time is spent on Jesus’ discourses and His more doctrinal teaching
Focus on the external events of Jesus’ life; more objective; more action Focus more on the spiritual events of Jesus’ life; more subjective; more contemplative

“The first three “may be compared to a succession of pictures, in which a painter represents a complete history;” the fourth produces the effect of a more ideal unity.”  source


Why are there four gospels?

The Bible does not answer this question.  Possibly, the answer is that the gospels were written for different audiences; and are therefore, more persuasive to these audiences.  Matthew, for instance, is clearly written for a Jewish audience.  Some theologians have speculated about this.  Ireneaus wrote:

It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number 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 all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. As also David says, when entreating His manifestation, “Thou that sittest between the cherubim, shine forth.” For the cherubim, too, were four-faced, and their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God. For, [as the Scripture] says, “The first living creature was like a lion,” symbolizing His effectual working, His leadership, and royal power; the second [living creature] was like a calf, signifying [His] sacrificial and sacerdotal order; but “the third had, as it were, the face as of a man,”—an evident description of His advent as a human being; “the fourth was like a flying eagle,” pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with His wings over the Church. And therefore the Gospels are in accord with these things, among which Christ Jesus is seated.  3.11.8


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