When did the “Gospel” become a Book?

To start off the question about genre, we can ask why Jesus books are called “Gospels,” a title not given to any other type of literature preceding them.  Before “Mark” there were collections of sayings, oral anecdotes about Jesus’ deeds (e.g., miracles, controversy stories, etc), possibly a passion narrative, and epistles to various congregations to instruct or correct them on their beliefs/practices/social organization, but Mark was revolutionary in combining isolated logia about Jesus (sayings or short narratives) with an account of the events leading up to his death and resurrection to create the first narrative “gospel.”  Mark set the model for future narrative lives of Jesus, though some works later entitled as “Gospels” in imitation of the superscriptions for the canonical Gospels fit the mold of Mark (e.g., the Gospel of Peter, the Ebionite “Gospel of the Hebrews” known to Epiphanius) more than others (e.g., the Gospel of Thomas, though the colophon may be a late addition to a collection of “hidden words” of the living Jesus).  But how did the term “gospel/good news” (euangelion) evolve from a proclamation to a book?

  1. The term euangelion may have been rooted in either the use of the verb euangelizomai in deutero-Isaiah for proclaiming the good news of salvation from exile (Isa 42:1) or it may have rooted in the imperial cult (see the Prienne calendar inscription, ca 9 BCE).  However, the singular neuter form is rare as the noun is only found once in the Septuagint in 2 Samuel 4:10 in the plural form (euangelia) (here it is used ironically for what the messenger thinks is good news for David in light of David’s response) and it is almost equally rare in the Greco-Roman sources (see Mason’s survey).  The “Christian” usage of this term seems fairly distinctive, though I think readers would still hear echoes of the scriptural and imperial background.
  2. The primitive “proclamation” of an early Jesus community:  “Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you… For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve…” (1 Cor 15:1, 3-4); “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:3-4)
  3. The Pauline corpus uses euangelion 60 out of the 76 uses in the NT.  If Paul did not initiate the usage of euangelion in the discourse, it was clearly a favourite term that he popularized.  Although we see above examples where he borrowed from traditional formulations, when the occasion demands Paul makes the rhetorical move to argue against those who attacked his apostolic calling by speaking about his “gospel” as a revelation from heaven (Gal 1:11-12) and labelling the messages of rivals (in this case those who demand non-Jews to Judaize by adopting Jewish customs) as a false gospel (Gal 1:6-9).  Paul’s gospel centres on the atoning death and resurrection/enthronement of the Messiah and its cosmic implications.
  4. Mark uses the term 7 times (excluding 16:15) generally in the sense of preaching, whether Jesus on the “good news” about the kingdom (Mk 1:15) or the disciples testimony about Jesus (13:10) or others involved in his life like the annointing woman (14:9).  However, Mk 1:1 has “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ [Son of God]” which leads to all sorts of questions:  is this just the first sentence to summarize the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with the baptism (but verse 1 has no predicate or verb to easily link on to the start of verse 2 “as it was written in Isaiah”, unless verses 2-3 are bracketed off and verse 1 is meant to connect with verse 4 that the beginning of the good news is [verb-to-be supplied] John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness) OR a stand alone title that summarizes the whole book (but usually Mark’s kathos clauses “as it was written” have something preceding it).  In any case, some scholars like the late Martin Hengel take Mark 1:1 as a title and setting precedent for calling Jesus books “Gospels.”
  5. While Matthew only has euangelion 4 times, the late Graham Stanton argued that the redactional “the gospel of the kingdom”  (4:23; 9:35; 24:14; cf. 13:9 “word of the kingdom”) or ”this [touto] gospel” (24:14; 26:13) summarizes the totality of Jesus’ teaching and deeds.  For instance, in 26:13, wherever “this gospel” is proclaimed, Jesus encounter with the woman will be too.  Thus, Stanton thinks “gospel” was a capsule summary of the contents of Matthew and encouraged the titular usage.  Interestingly, the term is absent in Q (or the double tradition in Matt/Luke), Luke and John.
  6. There is debate about whether the Apostolic Fathers cite oral tradition or written Gospels, but they do not tend to call their sources “gospels” (e.g., “the Lord said”).  Papias of Hierapolis (ca. 110-130) refers to named authors (Mark, Matthew) but does not call their writings “Gospels.”  Ignatius of Antioch (ca 110?) seems to know Matthew and possibly Luke/John but still seems to use “gospel” in the non-titular sense (contra Hill who makes too much of the equivalence of ‘prophets’ and ‘gospel’ and ‘apostles’ as written texts in my view).  The Didache (ca. late 1st century?) cites traditions “in the gospel” (8:2; 15:3-4; cf. 11:3).  There is debate about whether the author uses the term in the kerygmatic sense of proclamation or of a written text, which depends in part on whether (s)he is citing oral tradition or Matthew.  2 Clement (ca. 140-160) knows written Gospels and uses the formula “for the Lord says in the Gospel” (8:5).
  7. Martin Hengel’s theory is that, in ancient libraries/book shops, titles of books were necessary in order to distinguish them and, if they were written anonymously, a pseudonymous author would be provided.  In a similar way, Christians established their own scriptoria within major centres (e.g., Rome, Ephesus) and as soon as multiply copies of a Gospel began circulating it became necessary to supply them with a title and thus the titles would have been added fairly early.  Further, he argues that their striking uniformity and unconventionality (i.e. to euangelion kata Markon or “the gospel according to Mark” when the usual form of a title was the genitive of the author’s name followed by the title) supports that the titles were early or else there would have been different titles in circulation.
  8. Contra Hengel, Helmut Koester argues that euangelion continued to be used for oral proclamation well into the 2nd century (though he grants the case for 2 Clem ca. 150 CE).  Koester argues that Marcion initiated the use of “gospel” as a title of a literary work when he confused Paul’s reference to “my gospel” (cf. Rom 2:16) as a reference to his written gospel, which Tertullian deduces was an edited version of Luke though Marcion’s Gospel is formally anonymous (cf. Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.4.1-2).  Koester’s view would have to be qualified if the reference in the Didache is to a written Gospel text.
  9. Justin Martyr (ca. 140s) prefers the “memoirs of the apostles” but he is familiar with the title “Gospel” in using the plural euangelia (1 Apol. 66; Dial 1o.2).  Among the first to refer to written Gospels by the names of their authors are Theophilus of Antioch (Autol. 2.22) (ca 170s) and Irenaeus of Lyons (ca 175-85).
  10. My view is that the term euangelion evolved from the proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection to universal lordship (Paul) to the whole of his life (Mark, Matthew) to the title of Jesus books for some Christian writers in the first half of the second century (e.g., Didache [late first century?], Marcion, 2 Clement, Justin).  However, I think the standard titles imply a collection of more than one Gospel (for their to be a singular “Gospel” to be told “according to Mark” implies that it was also told in the perspective of another author like Matthew, Luke or John) and may have been applied to the Gospels at the emergence of a fourfold Gospel canon sometime in the latter half of the second century.

For much more details on the points above, here is a short Bibliography:

  • Bird, Mike.  “Mark, Interpreter of Peter and Disciple of Paul” in Paul and the Gospels: Christology, Conflicts and Convergences (ed. Michael F. Bird and Joel Willits; London and New York: T&T Clark, 2011): 30-58.
  • Gundry, Robert.  “EUAGGELION:  How Soon a Book?” JBL 115 (1996): 321-25.
  • Hengel, Martin.  The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ. London: SCM; Harrisburg: Trinity, 2000.
  • Hill, Charles.  “Ignatius, ‘the Gospel’ and the Gospels,” in The Reception of the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Kelhoffer,  James A. “‘How Soon a Book’ Revisited:  EUAGGELION as a Reference to ‘Gospel’ Materials in the First Half of the Second Century.”  Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 95 (2004): 1–34.
  • Koester, Helmut.  Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development. London: SCM;Philadelphia: Trinity International, 1990.
  • Mason, Steve.  “Methods and Categories:  Judaism and Gospel.”  The Bible and Interpretation (2009).
  • Stanton, Graham.  Jesus and Gospel.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • I also noticed a new WUNT monograph on Euangelion at the SBL bookstall if anyone knows more about it?
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2 Responses to When did the “Gospel” become a Book?

  1. […] relevant to my own recent postings about genre (including my survey of the Christian literature on euangelion).  They also provide some running commentary as they read through Mark.  I look forward to […]

  2. […] enough to send a plug my way, I have done a survey of the term “gospel” (euaggelion) here and a post on Mark 1:1 […]

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