Gospel originally meant the Christian message ("the gospel"), but in the 2nd century it came to be used also for the books in which the message was set out.[1] In this sense a gospel can be defined as a loose-knit, episodic narrative of the words and deeds of Jesus, culminating in his trial and death and concluding with various reports of his post-resurrection appearances.[2] Modern scholars are cautious of relying on the gospels uncritically, but nevertheless, they 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.[3][4]

The four canonical gospels were probably written between AD 66 and 110.[5][6][7] All four were anonymous (with the modern names added in the 2nd century), almost certainly none were by eyewitnesses, and all are the end-products of long oral and written transmission.[8] Mark was the first to be written, using a variety of sources.[9][10] The authors of Matthew and Luke both independently used Mark for their narrative of Jesus's career, supplementing it with a collection of sayings called the Q source and additional material unique to each.[11] There is near-consensus that John had its origins as the hypothetical Signs Gospel thought to have been circulated within a Johannine community.[12] The contradictions and discrepancies between the first three and John make it impossible to accept both traditions as equally reliable.[13]

Many non-canonical gospels were also written, all later than the four canonical gospels, and like them advocating the particular theological views of their various authors.[14][15] Important examples include the gospels of Thomas, Peter, Judas, and Mary; infancy gospels such as that of James (the first to introduce the perpetual virginity of Mary); and gospel harmonies such as the Diatessaron.


Gospel is the Old English translation of Greek εὐαγγέλιον, meaning "good news";[16] this may be seen from analysis of ευαγγέλιον (εὖ "good" + ἄγγελος "messenger" + -ιον diminutive suffix). The Greek term was Latinized as evangelium in the Vulgate, and translated into Latin as bona annuntiatio. In Old English, it was translated as gōdspel (gōd "good" + spel "news"). The Old English term was retained as gospel in Middle English Bible translations and hence remains in use also in Modern English.

Canonical gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John


The first page of the Gospel of Mark in Armenian, by Sargis Pitsak, 14th century.

The four canonical gospels share the same basic outline of the life of Jesus: he begins his public ministry in conjunction with that of John the Baptist, calls disciples, teaches and heals and confronts the Pharisees, dies on the cross, and is raised from the dead.[17] Each has its own distinctive understanding of him and his divine role[15] and scholars recognize that the differences of detail between the gospels are irreconcilable, and any attempt to harmonize them would only disrupt their distinct theological messages.[18]

Matthew, Mark and Luke are termed the synoptic gospels because they present very similar accounts of the life of Jesus.[19] Mark begins with the baptism of the adult Jesus and the heavenly declaration that he is the son of God; he gathers followers and begins his ministry, and tells his disciples that he must die in Jerusalem but that he will rise; in Jerusalem he is at first acclaimed but then rejected, betrayed, and crucified, and when the women who have followed him come to his tomb they find it empty.[20] Mark never calls Jesus "God" or claims that he existed prior to his earthly life, apparently believes that he had a normal human parentage and birth, makes no attempt to trace his ancestry back to King David or Adam;[21][22] it originally ended at Mark 16:8 and had no post-resurrection appearances, 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 knew of the tradition.[23]

The authors of Matthew and Luke added infancy and resurrection narratives to the story they found in Mark, although the two differ markedly.[24] Each also makes subtle theological changes to Mark: the Markan miracle stories, for example, confirm Jesus' status as an emissary of God (which was Mark's understanding of the Messiah), but in Matthew they demonstrate his divinity,[25] and the "young man" who appears at Jesus' tomb in Mark becomes a radiant angel in Matthew.[26][27] Luke, while following Mark's plot more faithfully than Matthew, has expanded on the source, corrected Mark's grammar and syntax, and eliminated some passages entirely, notably most of chapters 6 and 7.[28]

John, the most overtly theological, is the first to make Christological judgements outside the context of the narrative of Jesus's life.[15] He presents a significantly different picture of Jesus's career,[19] omitting any mention of his ancestry, birth and childhood, his baptism, temptation and transfiguration;[19] his chronology and arrangement of incidents is also distinctly different, clearly describing the passage of three years in Jesus's ministry in contrast to the single year of the synoptics, placing the cleansing of the Temple at the beginning rather than at the end, and the Last Supper on the day before Passover instead of being a Passover meal.[29] 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.[30]


The Synoptic sources: the Gospel of Mark (the triple tradition), Q (the double tradition), and material unique to Matthew (the M source), Luke (the L source), and Mark[31]

Like the rest of the New Testament, the four gospels were written in Greek.[32] The Gospel of Mark probably dates from c. AD 66–70,[5] Matthew and Luke around AD 85–90,[6] and John AD 90–110.[7] Despite the traditional ascriptions, all four are anonymous and most scholars agree that none were written by eyewitnesses.[8] A few conservative scholars defend the traditional ascriptions or attributions, but for a variety of reasons the majority of scholars have abandoned this view or hold it only tenuously.[33]

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.[34] The stages of this process can be summarised as follows:[35]

  • 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.[36]
  • Gospels formed by combining proto-gospels, written collections and still-current oral tradition.

Mark is generally agreed to be the first gospel;[9] it 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.[10] 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 source and additional material unique to each called the M source (Matthew) and the L source (Luke).[11][note 1] Mark, Matthew and Luke are called the synoptic gospels because of the close similarities between them in terms of content, arrangement, and language.[37] 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.[38] There is a near-consensus that this gospel had its origins as a "signs" source (or gospel) that circulated within the Johannine community (which produced John and the three epistles associated with the name) and later expanded with a Passion narrative as well as a series of discourses.[12][note 2]

All four also use the Jewish scriptures, by quoting or referencing passages, or by interpreting texts, or by alluding to or echoing biblical themes.[40] Such use can be extensive: Mark's description of the Parousia (second coming) is made up almost entirely of quotations from scripture.[41] Matthew is full of quotations and allusions,[42] and although John uses scripture in a far less explicit manner, its influence is still pervasive.[43] Their source was the Greek version of the scriptures, called the Septuagint; they do not seem familiar with the original Hebrew.[44]

Genre and historical reliability

The consensus among modern scholars is that the gospels are a subset of the ancient genre of bios, or ancient biography.[45] Ancient biographies were concerned with providing examples for readers to emulate while preserving and promoting the subject's reputation and memory; the gospels were never simply biographical, they were propaganda and kerygma (preaching).[46] As such, they present the Christian message of the second half of the first century AD,[47] and 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.[48]

The majority view among critical scholars is that the authors of Matthew and Luke have based their narratives on Mark's gospel, editing him to suit their own ends, and the contradictions and discrepancies between these three and John make it impossible to accept both traditions as equally reliable.[13] 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".[49] Most of these are insignificant, but many are significant,[50] an example being Matthew 1:18, altered to imply the pre-existence of Jesus.[51] 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.[3][4]

Scholars usually agree that John is not without historical value: certain of its sayings are as old or older than their synoptic counterparts, its representation of the topography around Jerusalem is often superior to that of the synoptics, its testimony that Jesus was executed before, rather than on, Passover, might well be more accurate, and its presentation of Jesus in the garden and the prior meeting held by the Jewish authorities are possibly more historically plausible than their synoptic parallels.[52] Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that the author had direct knowledge of events, or that his mentions of the Beloved Disciple as his source should be taken as a guarantee of his reliability.[53]

Textual history and canonisation

The oldest gospel text known is 𝔓52, a fragment of John dating from the first half of the 2nd century.[54] 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 Marcion, similar to the Gospel of Luke.[55] 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.[1][56]

Non-canonical (apocryphal) gospels

The Gospel of Thomas

The many apocryphal gospels arose from the 1st century onward, frequently under assumed names to enhance their credibility and authority, and often from within branches of Christianity that were eventually branded heretical.[57] They can be broadly organised into the following categories:[58]

  • Infancy gospels: arose in the 2nd century, include the Gospel of James, also called the Protoevangelium, which was the first to introduce the concept of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the unrelated Coptic 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.
  • Ministry gospels
  • Sayings gospels and agrapha
  • Passion, resurrection and post-resurrection gospels
  • Gospel harmonies: 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 apocryphal gospels can also be seen in terms of the communities which produced them:

  • The Jewish-Christian gospels are the products of Christians of Jewish origin who had not given up their Jewish identity: they regarded Jesus as the messiah of the Jewish scripture, but did not agree that he was God, an idea which, although central to Christianity as it eventually developed, is contrary to Jewish beliefs.
  • Gnostic gospels uphold the idea that the universe is the product of a hierarchy of gods, of whom the Jewish god is a rather low-ranking member. Gnosticism holds that Jesus was entirely "spirit", and that his earthly life and death were therefore only an appearance, not a reality. Many Gnostic texts deal not in concepts of sin and repentance, but with illusion and enlightenment.[59]
The major apocryphal gospels (after Bart Ehrman, "Lost Christianities" – comments on content are by Ehrman unless otherwise noted) [60]
TitleProbable dateContent
Epistle of the ApostlesMid 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 HebrewsEarly 2nd c.Events in the life of Jesus; Jewish-Christian, with possible gnostic overtones
Gospel of the EbionitesEarly 2nd c.Jewish-Christian, embodying anti-sacrificial concerns
Gospel of the EgyptiansEarly 2nd c."Salome" figures prominently; Jewish-Christian stressing asceticism
Gospel of Mary2nd 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.[61]

Gospel of the NazareansEarly 2nd c.Aramaic version of Matthew, possibly lacking the first two chapters; Jewish-Christian
Gospel of Nicodemus5th c.Jesus' trial, crucifixion and descent into Hell
Gospel of PeterEarly 2nd c.Fragmentary narrative of Jesus' trial, death and emergence from the tomb. It seems to be hostile toward Jews, and includes docetic elements.[62] 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.[62]
Gospel of Philip3rd c.Mystical reflections of the disciple Philip
Gospel of the SaviourLate 2nd c.Fragmentary account of Jesus' last hours
Coptic Gospel of ThomasEarly 2nd c.The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says that the original may date from c. 150.[63] 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;[63] other scholars believe it is a later text, dependent from the canonical gospels.[64][65] While it can be understood in Gnostic terms, it lacks the characteristic features of Gnostic doctrine.[63] It includes two unique parables, the parable of the empty jar and the parable of the assassin.[66] 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.[63]
Infancy Gospel of ThomasEarly 2nd c.Miraculous deeds of Jesus between the ages of five and twelve
Gospel of TruthMid 2nd c.Joys of Salvation
Papyrus Egerton 2Early 2nd c.Fragmentary, four episodes from the life of Jesus
DiatessaronLate 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.[67][68]
Protoevangelium of JamesMid 2nd c.Birth and early life of Mary, and birth of Jesus
Gospel of MarcionMid 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 MarkUncertainAllegedly a longer version of Mark written for an elect audience
Gospel of JudasLate 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.[69]
Gospel of Barnabas14th–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.[70]

See also


  1. The priority of Mark is accepted by most scholars, but there are important dissenting opinions: see the article Synoptic problem.
  2. The debate over the composition of John is too complex to be treated adequately in a single paragraph; for a more nuanced view see Aune (1987), "Gospel of John".[39]



  1. Cross & Livingstone 2005, p. 697.
  2. Alexander 2006, p. 16.
  3. Reddish 2011, pp. 21–22.
  4. Sanders 1995, pp. 4–5.
  5. Perkins 1998, p. 241.
  6. Reddish 2011, pp. 108, 144.
  7. Lincoln 2005, p. 18.
  8. Reddish 2011, pp. 13, 42.
  9. Goodacre 2001, p. 56.
  10. Boring 2006, pp. 13–14.
  11. Levine 2009, p. 6.
  12. Burge 2014, p. 309.
  13. Tuckett 2000, p. 523.
  14. Petersen 2010, p. 51.
  15. Culpepper 1999, p. 66.
  16. Woodhead 2004, p. 4.
  17. Thompson 2006, p. 183.
  18. Scholz 2009, p. 192.
  19. Burkett 2002, p. 217.
  20. Boring 2006, pp. 1–3.
  21. Burkett 2002, p. 158.
  22. Parker 1997, p. 125.
  23. Telford 1999, p. 148-149.
  24. Eve 2021, p. 29.
  25. Aune 1987, p. 59.
  26. Beaton 2005, pp. 117, 123.
  27. Morris 1986, p. 114.
  28. Johnson 2010a, p. 48.
  29. Anderson 2011, p. 52.
  30. Burkett 2002, p. 214.
  31. Honoré 1986, pp. 95–147.
  32. Porter 2006, p. 185.
  33. Lindars, Edwards & Court 2000, p. 41.
  34. Reddish 2011, p. 17.
  35. Burkett 2002, pp. 124–125.
  36. Martens 2004, p. 100.
  37. Goodacre 2001, p. 1.
  38. Perkins 2012, p. .
  39. Aune 1987, pp. 243–245.
  40. Allen 2013, pp. 43–44.
  41. Edwards 2002, p. 403.
  42. Beaton 2005, p. 122.
  43. Lieu 2005, p. 175.
  44. Allen 2013, p. 45.
  45. Lincoln 2004, p. 133.
  46. Dunn 2005, p. 174.
  47. Keith & Le Donne 2012, p. .
  48. Reddish 2011, p. 22.
  49. Ehrman 2005a, pp. 7, 52.
  50. Ehrman 2005a, p. 69.
  51. Ehrman 1996, pp. 75–76.
  52. Theissen & Merz 1998, pp. 36–37.
  53. Lincoln 2005, p. 26.
  54. Fant & Reddish 2008, p. 415.
  55. Ehrman 2005a, p. 34: "Marcion included a Gospel in his canon, a form of what is now the Gospel of Luke"
  56. Ehrman 2005a, p. 35.
  57. Aune 2003, pp. 199–200.
  58. Ehrman & Plese 2011, p. passim.
  59. Pagels 1989, p. xx.
  60. Ehrman 2005b, pp. xi–xii.
  61. Bernhard 2006, p. 2.
  62. Cross & Livingstone 2005, "Gospel of St. Peter".
  63. Cross & Livingstone 2005, "Gospel of Thomas".
  64. Casey 2010, p. .
  65. Meier 1991, p. .
  66. Funk, Hoover & Jesus Seminar 1993, "The Gospel of Thomas".
  67. Metzger 2003, p. 117.
  68. Gamble 1985, pp. 30–35.
  69. Ehrman 2006, p. passim.
  70. Wiegers 1995.


  • Achtemeier, Paul J. (1985). HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. San Francisco: HarperCollins. ISBN 9780060600372.
  • Alexander, Loveday (2006). "What is a Gospel?". In Barton, Stephen C. (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to the Gospels. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521807661.
  • Allen, O. Wesley (2013). Reading the Synoptic Gospels. Chalice Press. ISBN 978-0827232273.
  • Anderson, Paul N. (2011). The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel: An Introduction to John. Fortress Press. ISBN 978-1451415551.
  • Aune, David E. (1987). The New Testament in its literary environment. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 978-0-664-25018-8.
  • Aune, David E. (2003). The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 978-0-664-25018-8.
  • Bauckham, Richard (2008). Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Eerdmans. ISBN 978-0802863904.
  • Beaton, Richard C. (2005). "How Matthew Writes". In Bockmuehl, Markus; Hagner, Donald A. (eds.). The Written Gospel. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-83285-4.
  • Bernhard, Andrew E. (2006). Other Early Christian Gospels: A Critical Edition of the Surviving Greek Manuscripts. Library of New Testament Studies. Vol. 315. London; New York: T & T Clark. ISBN 0-567-04204-9.
  • Boring, M. Eugene (2006). Mark: A Commentary. Presbyterian Publishing Corp. ISBN 978-0-664-22107-2.
  • Brown, Raymond E. (1966). The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, Translation, and Notes, vol. 29, Anchor Yale Bible. Yale University Press. ISBN 9780385015172.

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