The word “gospel” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word god-spell, which meant “good tidings”. Understanding what a gospel is, is more complex than simply knowing the word’s origin. The phrase “good news” is used in more than one way in the New Testament and works not included in the Bible are titled as “gospel”.
In Paul’s letters, the gospel has to do with significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection and was not a written document but was something one heard proclaimed and believed.
Later the term “gospel” is used to describe written works. We have the four gospels of the New Testament. The titles of these works, “The Gospel According to….” were not part of the original works but were given to them at a later date.
There are other writings with “gospel” in the title, which are not at all like the gospels of the New Testament, for example “The Gospel of Thomas” or “The Gospel of Truth” .
The rest of the essay will focus on the canonical gospels, the four gospels of the New Testament.
Scholars believe originally stories about Jesus and his teachings were shared by word of mouth. They believe that the story of the events leading to Jesus’ death and the story of his resurrection were told, as were stories about Jesus’ miracles and his teaching. Over time these stories were written down. Finally the authors of the gospels collected these stories, written and oral, and wrote the gospels we have today.
There has been much scholarly debate about what type of writing (genre) the gospels are. Some believe they are a form of ancient Greco-Roman biography. There were different types of ancient biographies, none of which are exactly like our modern biographies. Some scholars believe they are ancient Greco-Roman histories. Others see similarities to the Old Testament stories of Moses, Samuel, etc. Scholars can make strong cases for each of these positions. Which leads other scholars to the conclusion that the New Testament gospels are a new type of writing, which was influenced by Greco-Roman biography, history and Old Testament literature.
The gospels are narratives about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus told, not as neutral reporting, but as proclamation. None of the gospels tell us about the entirety of Jesus life. There are differences in the order of events described in each gospel and there are differences in the way the same event is recounted in different gospels. The gospel writers are selective and intentional about what they write. In the ancient world, chronological order was not necessarily the most important part of the story. Sometimes authors would arrange or group events or sayings to highlight important ideas and truths. These are stories told to encourage the reader in their faith. Each of the four gospel writers has their own situation and community they are writing for and this shapes they way they tell the story. But all four share the same general purpose, to proclaim the good news of what God has done for them and for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah.
Read More About It:
Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, rev. ed. (Minneapolis:Fortress Press) 1999.
Metzger, Bruce “The Narrative Books- Gospels and Acts” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Bruce M. Metzger, Roland E. Murphy eds. (New York: Oxford University Press) 1994.
Tuckett, Christopher M. “Jesus and the Gospels” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, Leander E. Keck,ed. (Nashville, Abingdon Press)1994.
Yarbro Collins, Adela “Introduction to Books in the Form of Narrative” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary, rev. ed.James L Mays, ed. (New York: Society of Bible Literature) 2000.