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For the genre of Christian-themed music, see gospel music.

Gospels are a genre of ancient literature concerning the life of Jesus. The word derives from the old English word for good news. The Greek word for gospel is euangelion which also means 'good news', since they retold the 'good news' of Jesus redeeming a fallen world. Each of the books reveals, by telling the story of Jesus Christ's life, the "Good News" about Christ's life and presence. The word gospel can also have a narrower meaning, especially when used by evangelical Christians, to mean the specific actions of Christ which are necessary for salvation.

The usage of gospel (or its Greek equivalent) to denote a particular genre of writing dates back to the 2nd century. It was clearly used to denote a genre in Justin Martyr (c. 155) and more ambiguously so earlier in Ignatius of Antioch (c. 117).

Table of contents

Canonical Gospels

Of the many gospels that were written in antiquity, exactly four gospels came be accepted as part of the New Testament or canonical, possibly as early as Irenaeus of Lyons, c. AD 185.

Origin of the Canonical Gospels

Among the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke share many of the same passages in the life of Jesus using in many of the same words. John, on the other hand, expresses itself in a different style and relates the same incidents in a different manner.

The similarities between the first three Gospels are so telling in some cases that scholars have speculated on the relationship between them. In order to study them more closely, German scholar JJ Griesbach (1776) arranged the first three gospels a three-column table called a synopsis. As a result, the Matthew, Mark, and Luke have come to be known as the synoptic gospels, and the investigation into the reason for this similarity is known as the synoptic problem.

Many solutions to the synoptic problem have been proposed, but the most dominant view is that Mark is the first Gospel, with Matthew and Luke borrowing passages both from that Gospel and from another, lost source, known as Q. This view is known as the "Two Source" hypothesis.

Another theory which addresses the synoptic problem is the Farrer theory. This theory maintains Markan Priority (that Mark was written first) and dispenses with the need for a theoretical document Q. What Austin Farrer has argued is that Luke used Matthew as a source as well as Mark, explaining the similarities between them without having to refer to a hypothetical document.

The fourth gospel, John, is quite different in tone, often full of more encompassing theological and philosophical messages.

Estimated dates of the writing of the Gospels:

  • Matthew - dating?
  • Mark - c. 60-80 (as propounded by W R Telford, among others)
  • Luke - dating?
  • John - c. 90-110 (as propounded by C K Barrett, among others)

Noncanonical Gospels

The four canonical gospels were not the only lives of Jesus to have written. There have been many other gospels that were not accepted into the canon.

The Diatessaron was a harmonization the four canonical gospels into single narrative by Tatian around AD 175. It was popular for at least two centuries in Syria, but eventually it fell into disuse and no copies of it have survived, except indirectly in some medieval Gospel harmonies that can be considered its descendants.

Marcion of Sinope, c. AD 150, produced his own edition of the Gospel of Luke in accordance with his dualistic belief in two different gods, the compassionate God of Christ and the cruel God of the Old Testament. Specifically, he removed those parts of Luke that he considered too Jewish. He also rejected all other gospels.

See also Secret Gospel of Mark[?].

Other books, which were not accepted, form part of the New Testament Apocrypha, and include:

Some of these works are similar in style and content to the canonical Gospels. Others are works in which Jesus features as little more than a mouthpiece for Gnostic doctrine.

Other works claiming to be gospels have surfaced in later periods. The Gospel of Barnabas originates in the medieval period. Works from the modern period (sometimes called modern apocrypha) include the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Life of Issa. Parts of the Book of Mormon can also be considered to be a gospel, since they purport to tell of Jesus' appearances on the American continent.

Liturgical Usage

In many Christian churches, all Christians present stand when a passage from one of the Gospels is read publicly, and sit when a passage from a different part of the Bible is read.

Usage in Eastern Orthodoxy liturgy

Typically, the Gospel is publicly read only by a priest or bishop, although other Bible passages may be read by a designated lay person. As in other churches, all stand while the Gospel is being read. Also, the Gospel book is normally kept in a prominent place on the altar. The only thing that is permitted to occupy its place on the altar is the Body and Blood of Christ during the Divine Liturgy, or on certain feast days a Cross. When the Gospel is read, it is brought from the altar to the nave in procession, and afterwards returned to its place.

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