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What Is A Gospel?

​​The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark 1:1 (NIV)

Most modern biblical scholars believe Mark was the first Gospel written about Jesus Christ’s ministry. Until about 1800, the church generally accepted the view, first advanced by Augustine, that Matthew’s Gospel was the first Gospel written. Before the 1800’s, biblical scholars took the view that Mark abbreviated Matthew’s Gospel, and Luke used both Matthew and Mark to compose his Gospel message.

If Mark’s Gospel was the first Gospel written, then Mark started a new literary genre with no parallels. There were really no parallels in the Old Testament, ancient Judaism or Greco-Roman literature. Mark created a new and unique literary genre to help a first century audience facing a particular first century situation under the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit. Many modern biblical scholars believe the other Gospel writers (Matthew, Luke and John) continued Mark’s new unique literary genre in writing about Jesus Christ’s ministry.

There were other first century forms of literature that were similar to a Gospel. Some argued that the Gospel writers were imitating a first century form of literature called Roman biographies. In the first century, these biographies were a mixture of historical fact, interpretation, and propaganda. Unlike the Gospels, Roman biographies never told of the struggles and hardships of the Roman Emperors. Yet, the Gospel writers told of Jesus Christ’s humanness, including His sorrow (Mark 14:34), disappointment (Mark 8:12), displeasure (Mark 10:14-15), anger (Mark 11:15-17), amazement (Mark 6:6), fatigue (Mark 4:38) and even uncertainty (Mark 13:32).

Some argued that the Gospels were just another form of miracle stories. In the first century Roman world, there were written collections of miracle stories. These stories included figures or people in the first century Roman Empire that were given the name “divine men,” also called “theois aner” in Greek. An example of such men included Simon Magus in Acts 8:9-25. These divine men were sorcerers or magicians and they were able to perform miracles. In Greek literature, the Greco-Romans believed the Greek gods lived on Mount Olympics and these Greek gods would sometimes make a sneak appearance on earth disguised a man. At Acts 14:8-20, when Paul and Barnabas were at Lystra and miraculous healed a slave girl, the people of Lystra believed the “gods have come down to us in human form” (Acts 14:12).  Paul and Barnabas were given the names of the two Greek gods, Zeus and Hermes and they were seen as divine men. In the first century, there were stories of these divine men and some argue say that the Gospel writers were essentially a pattern of these theois aner stories, particularly the Gospel of Mark. Much of Mark’s Gospel consisted of the miraculous healings of Jesus Christ. However, these miraculous accounts of these divine men verse the miracles of the Gospel are radically different. Many of these miracle stories of divine men emphasized the mechanics of actually how the miracles were done. However, the Gospels especially in Mark recorded Jesus Christ’s miracles but the Gospel writers gave no mechanics of how He performed His miracles. Thus although there were some similarities of divine men stories and the Gospels of the first century, these divine men stories were weak in comparison to the Gospels.

In summary, Gospels about Jesus Christ were not just a form of an Emperor biography or a theois aner story. Although these other first century literary forms may be similar to a Gospel, Mark’s Gospel was a unique literary genre with no real precedent and no significant comparison. One cannot explain the Gospel as divine men stories or a Roman Emperor biography.

In the New Testament, the word “Gospel” has two different meanings. First, the Gospel is the actual words spoken directly from Jesus Christ’s lips about the reign of God (Mark 1:14). Second, the Gospel is the story told about Jesus Christ’s earthly death and resurrection (Galatians 1:11-12; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8). The Gospel message Apostle Paul preached was the Good News of victory over sin through the saving effects of Jesus Christ’s death by crucifixion and of His triumph over death in His resurrection. Faith in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection is the only hope for sinful humans to “inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50-53-57). In each case “Gospel” refers to the work which God alone initiates and completes through His Son Jesus Christ. The central figure of the Gospel is Jesus Christ, in and through whom the history and the promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled (see Luke 24:27, 44-47; see Hebrews 1:1-2). Therefore, the Gospel is the continuation of the work which God began in Jesus Christ.

In Mark 1:1, Mark declares the essential content of his Gospel. At the very outset, Mark announces that the content of the Gospel is the Person of Jesus, who is the Christ and Son of God (Mark 1:1). “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1, NIV). This message is a brief confession of faith, the meaning of which will unfold as the reader follows Mark’s presentation of Jesus Christ in his Gospel. For Mark, the Gospel is the message and story of God’s saving activity through the life, death, and resurrection of God’s unique Son Jesus Christ. In the apparent appearance of Jesus in Galilee, a new age had dawn that requires repentance and faith. Mark’s written record of Jesus’ life is itself called a Gospel. The most basic summary of Jesus Christ’s preaching appears in Mark 1:15. “The time has come,” Jesus said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the Good News!” Jesus Christ’s purpose was to bring the Kingdom of God. He is the Proclaimer and Bringer of the Kingdom and all aspects of Jesus Christ’s life and death are related to this mission of the Kingdom.

The word gospel simply means “good news.” The “Gospel of Jesus Christ” is the Good News that God's unique Son has come into the world and died for our sins. The Gospel is the Good News because through faith in God’s Son our sins can be forgiven, we can be reconciled to God, and declared God’s child (e.g., see John 1:12-14; John 3:16-17; Ephesians 2:5, 8-9; 2 Corinthians 5:11-21). Even more, the Gospel is God’s proclamation victory over sin, death, and hell (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, 51-52; Galatians 1:1-9). The Gospel is the power of God’s Holy Spirit to raise the dead, to bring new life, and release bondage from sin (Romans 1:16-17; Romans 15:13; 1 Corinthians 2:4-5; 1 Thessalonians 1:5).

Gospel is the usual New Testament translation of the Greek word “euangelion.” The concept of good news itself finds its roots in the Hebrew language of the Old Testament. In both the Old Testament and in Greek literature, euangelion was commonly used for reports of victory from the battlefield. Also, the “euangelion” was used in the Greco-Roman world as describing the birthday of the Emperor. In the Greco-Roman world, the birth of the Emperor was seen as a manifestation of a god in the first century. For example in 9 B.C., the birthday of Caesar Augustus was hailed as “euangelion.” Since Caesar Augustus was hailed as a god, his birthday signaled the beginning of good news for the world. Yet, the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah used “good news” as the anticipated deliverance and salvation from the hand of God when the long-awaited Messiah appeared to deliver Israel (Isaiah 52:7; Isaiah 61:1-3). The military-political and personal references of good news were united in the hope of a Messiah who would deliverer God’s people and usher in a new age of salvation. The arrival of this Messiah would be good news. For Mark, the arrival (advent) of Jesus Christ is the beginning of the fulfillment of the “good news” announced by the Prophet Isaiah. Christians increasingly used euanggelion as a specific term to describe the good news of Jesus.

Normally, people have defined the Gospel as the story of Jesus Christ. However, the Gospels are not true biographies of Jesus Christ. The Gospels essentially omit the first 30 years of Jesus’ life and focus mostly on the last three years of Jesus Christ’s life. Apart from Jesus Christ’s birth (see Matthew 1–2; Luke 1–2) and one from His youth at age twelve (Luke 2:41–52), the four Gospels record essentially the last two or three years of Jesus Christ’s public ministry. Moreover, the Gospels tells us very little of Jesus Christ’s family life including His earthly father, His brothers and sisters. Essentially, Joseph never appears in the story after Jesus Christ’s birth. The Gospels give few reference to His brothers and sister (Matthew 12:46-50; Mark 3:21, 31-32; Mark 6:3; Luke 8:19-21; John 7:4-5) and no reference to Jesus’ educational background. Even the length of Jesus Christ’s public ministry is normally believed to be three years based on John’s Gospel references to Jesus’ attendance at three Passover events in Jerusalem. The traditional chronological of three years is based on the chronology of John where Jesus Christ went to Jerusalem on three different Passovers. Therefore, the Gospels are not true biographies of Jesus Christ’s life.

Even more, the four Gospel writers did not write their Gospels as an objective historical survey of Jesus Christ’s life and ministry. These Gospel writers were evangelist and they were calling readers to a commitment and faith in Jesus Christ. Moreover, the Gospel writers presented four distinctive theological portraits of Jesus Christ sent to four different first century Christian communities to help them deal with their circumstances. Matthew’s Gospel was written primarily for the Jews. After all, Matthew had to prove to his readers that Jesus Christ was indeed the rightful Heir to David's throne. Luke’s Gospel focused mainly Jesus Christ's humanity, for he knew that his Greek readers would identify with the perfect Babe who grew up to be the perfect Man. John's Gospel begins with a statement about eternity because John wrote to prove to the whole world that Jesus Christ of Nazareth is the Son of God (John 20:31). Mark wrote his Gospel for the Romans, and his theme is Jesus Christ the Servant (Mark 10:45). The Gospel of Mark reveals Jesus Christ as God's Servant, sent to minister to suffering people and to die for the sins of the world. Mark gives us no account of Jesus Christ’s birth, nor does Mark record a genealogy of Jesus Christ. Essentially, the Gospel writers give four distinctive versions of the same story of Jesus Christ. The church has resisted any attempts to harmonize the four Gospel accounts of Jesus Christ into one story.

Around A.D. 150, Tatian compiled the life of Jesus Christ, called the Diatessaron. In the Diatessaron, Tatian attempted to harmonize the four Gospels into one account of Jesus Christ. Tatian started with John’s Gospel and John’s chronological of Jesus Christ’s life and tried to Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels into John’s chronological to create one Gospel account of Jesus Christ. Principally, the Diatessaron is a harmony of the four New Testament Gospels and attempted to simplify the Gospels into one account of the life of Jesus Christ. However, Tatian’s Diatessaron was eventually rejected by the early church and the Diatessaron no longer exists.

Prior to Tatian’s Diatessaron, the church had accepted the four-fold Gospels as a faithful witness to Jesus Christ. At an early date, the church realized that the combined witness of the four Gospels was required to proclaim the full and distinctive theological portrait of Jesus Christ. From the late second century forward, the Gospels have been circulated as a four-fold written collection of Jesus Christ. The early church saw a unique witness of Jesus Christ in each Gospel account and it was important to preserve the uniqueness of Jesus Christ’s life in each Gospel.
Matthew, Mark and Luke Gospels are often called collectively the “Synoptic Gospels”. These three Gospels tell essentially the same story of Jesus Christ in a similar fashion and similar content. The Synoptic Gospels casts the life of Jesus Christ within the framework of a Galilean ministry that extended from His baptism to His death, with emphasis on His final week on earth. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke recount many of the same incidents or teachings of Jesus Christ often in the same or related wording, arrangement, and content (e.g., see Matthew 3:13–17, Mark 1:9–11, and Luke 3:21–22). However, the Gospel of John presents a more independent account of Jesus Christ’s public ministry. John's Gospel begins with a statement about Jesus Christ’s eternity (John 1:1-5). John wrote his Gospel to prove to the whole world that Jesus Christ of Nazareth is the unique and eternal Son of God (see John 1:18; John 3:16; John 20:31).

In the past 200 years, a great deal of study has been devoted to discovering the historical Jesus Christ of the Gospels. There were probably 50 or more gospels written other than the first four Gospels found in the New Testament. These gospels are often called “apocryphal gospels” and they were written much later than the first four Gospels given in the New Testament. The Gospels in the New Testament were all composed by the end of the first century. However, the apocryphal gospels came out of the second, third, fourth and fifth centuries. Out of many gospels and other accounts of the life of Jesus (Luke 1:1-2), God led the early church to choose the four Gospel which He had inspired by the Holy Spirit – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

In the mid-1980s, a group called the “Jesus Seminar” lead by Robert Funk tried to find the historical or “real” Jesus. This group felt that the portrait of Jesus Christ through the early church was distorted over the years. This group saw the Gospels as a collection of what people had come to believe about Jesus Christ. The group sought to discover the “real” Jesus by surveying all documents that discussed Jesus Christ from the first 500 years of church history and this included these apocryphal gospels. Thus, the Jesus Seminar group gave the apocryphal gospels equal importance or equal weight as the first four Gospels written in the first century. The picture of Jesus Christ that emerges from the Jesus Seminar is often modern, politically correct, peaceful, and fits into the 21st century. Sadly, the portrait of Jesus Chris from these apocryphal gospels is distinctly different from the theological portrait of Jesus Christ of the four Gospels of the New Testament.

Nevertheless, how did the oral communications about Jesus transition from a spoken message to written books? The four-fold Gospels did not miraculous drop from the sky and appear. There was a long and complex process to the creation of the Gospels after Jesus Christ’s death and ascension. Historical documents outside the Bible documents approximately AD 30 Jesus Christ was crucified and dead at the hands Rome by Pontius Pilate. Approximately AD 30 marked the end of the earthly life of Jesus Christ (see also Acts 1). In approximately AD 65 or 68, this was the beginning appearance of the first written Gospel. Mark was the first Gospel believed to have been written around AD 65 and the last Gospel written believed to be John’s Gospel around AD 90. Matthew and Luke appeared to have been written around AD 70 to 90. Thus, there was approximately 35 to 40 years between the events of Jesus Christ’s life and Mark’s Gospel. This puzzles approximately 40 year gaps between Jesus Christ’s life and the first written Gospel puzzles the modern world. Twenty-first century westerner society was geared to writings and skeptical of the long delay and possible forgetfulness of the Gospel writers.

Yet, first century Palestine where Jesus Christ’s lived and ministered was an oral society. In first century Palestine, this period was a period of oral traditions and oral traditions about Jesus Christ circulated among the Christian churches by the witnesses of the historical Jesus during AD 30 and AD 60. Reading ability was uncommon in the ancient world. Books and writing equipment were expensive and usually reserved for the rich alone. Consequently, many societies including first century Palestine preserved and transmitted the message about Jesus Christ by word of mouth. Such a system may seem fragile and unreliable by modern standards, but ancient societies including first century Palestine trusted these oral methods and forms they developed to sustain the process. Within the New Testament, the word euanggelion always refers to oral communications about Jesus Christ, never to a document or piece of literature. The remaining Twelve disciples of Jesus Christ (e.g. John, Matthew, and Peter) that witnessed the historical Jesus and many others such as Apostle Paul, John Mark, and Luke would circulate the message of Jesus Christ’s life by oral communications. The early church missionaries received pieces of Jesus Christ’s story from these authoritative disciples of Jesus Christ and this how the stories of Jesus Christ spread in the first century. Many biblical scholars believe that there were probably written parts of the Jesus Christ’s story during this period of oral traditions. Most likely, the Passion story of Jesus Christ and the last week of Jesus Christ’s life from Palm Sunday with the Triumphal Entry to Easter Sunday were written down in first century Palestine. Also, New Testament writings of Apostle Paul, the other disciples of Jesus Christ, and even the Apostle Creed focused on Jesus Christ’s Passion (death and resurrection). In fact, Apostle Paul’s teaching and thirteen Epistles focused little on the earthly life of Jesus Christ and focused primarily on Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection first. Besides, the Passion story of Jesus Christ is almost identical in the four Gospels of the New Testament. However, when one starts at the Passion story and work backward, there is more variety and less agreement in the four Gospel message. First instance, Mark has no birth story of Jesus Christ, Luke’s and Matthew’s birth stories of Jesus Christ are different. So the most substantial agreement of Jesus Christ’s life is His Passion.

Also, there was no need to write down the events of Jesus Christ’s life because from approximately AD 30 to AD 70 the eyewitnesses to Jesus Christ’s life events were alive. The remaining Twelves disciples of Jesus Christ and many other faithful followers who had physically seen and eyewitness the historical Jesus and heard His teaching were alive and could authenticate His life and ministry (see Acts 1:21-22). In the first century, there were other stories of Jesus Christ such as the infancy gospel of Thomas but these stories were never canonized and never authenticated by the Twelve. Moreover, some stories of Jesus Christ were not written down because the people of the first century believed in the imminent end of the world and the return of Jesus Christ (e.g. see 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11).

Then, about thirty years after Jesus Christ’s ascension to heaven, several interrelated crises impacted the early church. As a result of these crises, the early church responded to the leadership of God’s Holy Spirit to write down the teachings, stories, and message of Jesus. Around AD 65, the Gospels started to appear in written form. First of all, by AD 70 most of the Christians were in the Roman world and the Roman world was geared towards written documents, unlike Palestine’s oral society. With the persecution of Christians in Palestine, the Gospel message about Jesus Christ had spread rapidly into the Roman world. Most of the Christian church – evangelists, teachers and preachers – were not in Jerusalem but in the utter most parts of the Roman world (see Matthew 28:16-20; Acts 1:8).

Also during this time, the Emperor Nero initiated the first official persecution so he could use early Christians as scapegoats for his own insane actions. After setting fire to the city of Rome in A.D. 64 as a way to clear a portion of the city for a construction project, Nero unfairly accused Christians for committing the burning of Rome. On the basis of this supposed guilt, Nero began persecution of Christians which included arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution. The persecution begun by Nero continued in varying degrees by other Roman officials throughout the New Testament period. From a historical perspective, this persecution by Nero and others may have strengthened the spirit of the early church. Moreover by AD 70, most the eyewitnesses to Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry were dead leaving few disciples to authenticate the message of Jesus Christ’s life. Most believe by AD 70 most of the remaining Twelve disciples and other faithful followers of Jesus, including Apostle Paul were martyred except John who lived to the end of the first century. Some disciples during Nero’s persecutions and others simply aged enough to pass away from natural causes. The early church placed a high value on these faithful disciples and their actually having seen and heard Jesus Christ (Luke 1:2; 1 John 1:1). These witnesses had actually “heard . . . seen . . . looked at . . . touched” the historical Jesus during His public ministry (1 John 1:1; see also John 1:14; John 19:35; John 20:27; Luke 24:28; Acts 4:20; 2 Peter 1:16; 1 John 4:14)).  So since most of the personal eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ were deceased, there was a mission by the early church to transfer the oral traditions of Jesus Christ to written form. Finally, there was the realization of many believers of Jesus Christ that end of the world was not near. Members of the early church believed Jesus would return soon, so they felt no real urgency to write down His teachings for the future generations. Preaching recorded in the New Testament’s books such as Acts, Romans, and Corinthians have a distinct sense of urgency about the return of Jesus. The apostles believed that Jesus would be returning any day and that it was more important for them to give as many people as possible the opportunity to respond to the Gospel than to written down the message. Their constant emphasis was to communicate the Gospel and not to preserve the Gospel for the future. As a longer and longer period of time passed after Jesus’ ascension, the church became more and more concerned about preserving the Gospel message. The expectation of the immediacy of Jesus Christ’s return lessened by AD 70 and the fall of the Jewish Temple. So the expectation of the imminent of the end of the world was modified with the fall of the Temple. So, the oral traditions of Jesus Christ’s life began to be written, first by Mark’s Gospel. 

In the late 19th century and the first part of the 20th century, there was another definition of a Gospel. However, this definition accounts for a discipline called form criticism. Form criticism flourished from the 1900 to 1950 and they focused on the period of oral traditions about Jesus Christ. The form critics concluded that during the forty-year oral period the stories circulated about Jesus Christ were embellished or exaggerated. They argue the four Gospels of the New Testament were based upon these embellished or exaggerated stories of Jesus Christ. According to form critics when Mark received the oral traditions of Jesus Christ’s life for his Gospel, these oral traditions were not “fresh” from the source. Form critics argue that Mark’s oral sources about Jesus Christ were now embellished stories as used in the life of the church. Thus, form critics state the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were just collections of oral embellished stories the early church had come to believe about Jesus Christ. However, form critics failed to take into consideration that the New Testament itself considered these oral traditions about Jesus Christ sacred and authoritative and not mere embellished gossip (see e.g., Luke 1:1-2; 1 Corinthians 7; 1 Corinthians 15:3). Even more, form critics’ methodology for assessing and critiquing the Gospels were flawed. For example, form critics Rudolph Bultmann and J. Jeremias both used form critical methodology to assess the Gospels. Using this same methodology Bultmann was very skeptical of the history of the Gospel while Jeremias using the same form critical methodology was very optimistic of the historical Jesus and the Gospel message. Thus, Jeremias and Bultmann essentially used the same form critical methodology and concluded with two differing opinions about Jesus Christ. Thus, the methodology of form criticism was not accurate and flawed and by the 1950’s, form criticism was abandoned. 

Today, many modern biblical scholars define the Gospels as a theological portrait of Jesus. When the Gospels were written, the Gospels were sent to first century Christian communities that were mainly house churches. These Gospels were sent to these house churches to help Christians dealing with their first century troubles and circumstances. The Gospel writers were written by people that believed in Jesus and therefore the Gospels were evangelists. These evangelists were convinced of Jesus Christ and they were trying to convince others. Thus, Gospel writers gave the house churches a portrait of Jesus Christ and a portrait is essentially an interpretation of Jesus Christ by an artist. That is why the portraits of Jesus Christ are different in each Gospel because each Gospel writers are writing to their specific audience and addressing their audiences’ specific first century issues. That is why Irenaeus and the other church resisted incorporating the Gospels into one story of Jesus because each Gospel gives a different and distinct portrait or witness about Jesus Christ. In the 20th century, a Gospel discipline called redaction criticism tried to understand the Gospel text holistically and connect the Gospel to a first century event or situation. However, many argued this method is flawed like form criticism. So the most common method today is “story approach” in understanding a Gospel. This approach reads the Gospel holistically like redaction criticism but do not tie the Gospel to a first century situation.  However, some critics of the story approach argue without considering the first century circumstances surrounding the Gospels, the Gospels would be a short distance to an allegory. Most biblical scholars today read the Gospels as a story while also considering the cultural, religious, and historical conditions of the first century.

Zondervan NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008).
Butler, Trent. Holman Bible Dictionary (Broadman & Holman Pub., 1991).
Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002).
Kelber, Werner. Mark’s Story of Jesus (Houston, TX: Fortress Press, 1979).
Loyd, Melton, Ph.D., Professor of New Testament. Due West Campus: Erskine Theological Seminary, 2015.
Wiersbe, Warren W. Bible Exposition Commentary (Victor Books, 1989).
Youngblood, Ronald F. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Pub., 1995). 

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