What are the Gospels?
The Gospels are four books found in the New Testament that record the stories of what Jesus Christ said and did. They were most likely produced in the second half of the first century, as early as the 60s. Although some scholars date John’s Gospel to the end of the first century in the 90s, others suggest a much earlier date for its composition. Interestingly the oldest extant New Testament text is a fragment from John’s Gospel, dated about AD 125.
Although the Gospels appear first in sequence in the New Testament, they were written after some of Paul’s letters-these letters are the earliest documents in the New Testament dating from as early as AD 49 through the 50s. In the earliest letters Paul refers to the important events of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. However, the Gospels provide detailed information about those events found nowhere else in the New Testament. Additionally, the Gospels contain information about his birth and ministry and therefore are essential sources for any attempt to reconstruct the live of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Gospel, an English term deriving from the Old English godspel, means “good news.” Gospel is a translation of the Greek euangellion and refers to the good news of Jesus Christ and the salvation he made possible. Eventually, the term was applied to the four written narratives that preserved the memory of Jesus’ words and deed. Scholars have been interested in understanding what the Gospels are-what kind of genre. Recently, some scholars have argued that they are best understood as ancient biographies. If this is true, this may help the reader understand the original purpose for their production.
Scholars have been interested in the sources behind the Gospel account. Mark’s Gospel, most likely the oldest Gospel, is often identified as “Peter’s Memoirs,” because much of the content may have come directly from Peter himself. Matthew and Luke are thought to have been composed shortly after Mark’s Gospel began to circulate. There is significant and overwhelming internal evidence that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source. However, Matthew and Luke added special material such as a birth narrative to their accounts (see Matthew 1–2 and Luke 1–2).
Because of the relationship between them, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are referred to as the “Synoptic Gospels,” derives from Greek words that mean “look like.” John stands apart from the Synoptic Gospels and is sometimes identified as the “Fourth Gospel,” because John provides the most unique material about Jesus Christ, estimated to be as much as ninety percent, of the Gospel accounts.
All the Gospels were first composed in Greek. The Greek texts of the Gospels sometimes reveal an earlier Aramaic strata of material, especially as they record the words of Jesus Christ. In a few cases the Greek text preserves a transliteration of Aramaic phrases from Jesus’ lips (see for example Matthew 27:46).
No original texts of the Gospels, identified as “autographs,” survived from antiquity. Only copies of copies exist today, the earliest of these are only fragments. These important early witnesses are mostly held in libraries and archives. The earliest manuscripts were all preserved on papyrus and written with black ink. Presently, more than five thousand New Testament manuscripts have been discovered from the period before printing. Scholars study these manuscripts in order to identify what the original text may have read when they were first composed.
Although the Gospels themselves do not always agree on geographic reference points or on a strict chronological narration of events, many scholars argue that on the essential matters, the Gospels tell the same story. Interestingly, they all focus on the last twenty-four hours of Jesus Christ’s life and each provides an empty tomb story. In these Gospels we discover what the earliest Christians believed about Jesus and how Jesus was remembered.
“Insofar as Jesus is a unique figure in the ancient world (e.g. the Christian claims about the “resurrection” of Jesus are without real analogy), then the accounts of his life, death, and resurrection are without analogy. For example, no Jew wrote a comparable life of JohananbenZakkai or Hillel. But the nature of the NT Gospels as in some sense “biographies,” at least as understood in the ancient world, should alert us to the riches they contain and the complexities which any reading of them involves.”
Christopher Tuckett is a lecturer in the Faculty of Theology, Oxford University, Oxford, United Kingdom.
Christopher Tuckett, “Gospels” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000), 523.
“Only with respect to Jesus were the various individuals pieces assembled to form a portrait in their own right-a fact of theological and Christological importance. In concentrating the readers’ attention upon the person of Jesus through writing a biography, the early Christian gospel writers were asserting something which was never said of a rabbi-that he was centre stage as the embodiment, or even replacement of Torah, a unique individual revealing God in his deeds and words, life, death and resurrection. The desire to make this deliberate Christological claim forced the early Christian writers to move out from the Jewish tradition of stories and anecdotes to use a Greek genre of continuous biographical narrative. The actual writing of a gospel was an Christological claim in itself and also contributed toward the ‘parting of the ways’ between the early Christian and the developing rabbinic tradition.”
Richard A. Burridge is Dean of King’s College London and is a member of the Church of England’s General Synod.
Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 339-40.
Living out a great season of my life, thanks to Jesus Christ, and two wonderful daughters, a great life's work. Loving this opportunity to share faith online... I'm a single Mom, convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, second-gen Italian, from the East coast originally. Love the fine arts, dance, frozen yogurt, temples, scriptures, writing, jazz, helping others reach their potential, king salmon, ....and not in that order. God is good. I feel it deeply when people have a misconception of Heavenly Father or Jesus Christ, His Son, that lessens or cheapens Them and blinds one's ability to feel His presence or to trust in an ultimately good eternal end to life's circumstances.