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The word Gospel usually designates a written record of Christ's words and deeds. It is very likely derived from the Anglo-Saxon god (good) and spell (to tell), and is generally treated as the exact equivalent of the Greek euaggelion ( eu well, aggello , I bear a message), and the Latin Evangelium , which has passed into French, German, Italian, and other modern languages. The Greek euaggelion originally signified the "reward of good tidings" given to the messenger, and subsequently "good tidings". Its other important meanings will be set forth in the body of the present general article on the Gospels.

(1) Titles of the Gospels

The first four historical books of the New Testament are supplied with titles ( Euaggelion kata Matthaion, Euaggelion kata Markon , etc.), which, however ancient, do not go back to the respective authors of those sacred writings. The Canon of Muratori, Clement of Alexandria, and St. Irenæus bear distinct witness to the existence of those headings in the latter part of the second century of our era. Indeed, the manner in which Clement (Strom., I, xxi), and St. Irenæus (Adv. Hær., III, xi, 7) employ them implies that, at that early date, our present titles to the Gospels had been in current use for some considerable time. Hence, it may be inferred that they were prefixed to the evangelical narratives as early as the first part of that same century. That, however, they do not go back to the first century of the Christian era, or at least that they are not original, is a position generally held at the present day. It is felt that since they are similar for the four Gospels, although the same Gospels were composed at some interval from each other, those titles were not framed, and consequently not prefixed to each individual narrative, before the collection of the four Gospels was actually made. Besides, as well pointed out by Prof. Bacon, "the historical books of the New Testament differ from its apocalyptic and epistolary literature, as those of the Old Testament differ from its prophecy, in being invariably anonymous, and for the same reason. Prophecies whether in the earlier or in the later sense, and letters, to have authority, must be referable to some individual ; the greater his name, the better. But history was regarded as a common possession. Its facts spoke for themselves. Only as the springs of common recollection began to dwindle, and marked differences to appear between the well-informed and accurate Gospels and the untrustworthy . . . did it become worth while for the Christian teacher or apologist to specify whether the given representation of the current tradition was 'according to' this or that special compiler, and to state his qualifications". It thus appears that the present titles of the Gospels are not traceable to the Evangelists themselves.

The first word common to the headings of our four Gospels is Euaggelion , some meanings of which remain still to be set forth. The word, in the New Testament , has the specific meaning of "the good news of the kingdom" (cf. Matthew 4:23 ; Mark 1:15 ). In that sense, which may be considered as primary from the Christian standpoint, Euaggelion denotes the good tidings of salvation announced to the world in connexion with Jesus Christ, and, in a more general way, the whole revelation of Redemption by Christ (cf. Matthew 9:35 ; 24:14 ; etc.; Mark 1:14 ; 13:10 ; 16:15; Acts 20:24 ; Romans 1:1, 9, 16 ; 10:16 ; etc.). This was, of course, the sole meaning connected with the word, so long as no authentic record of the glad tidings of salvation by Christ had been drawn up. In point of fact, it remained the only one in use even after such written records had been for some time received in the Christian Church : as there could be but one Gospel, that is, but one revelation of salvation by Jesus Christ, so the several records of it were not regarded as several Gospels, but only as distinct accounts of one and the same Gospel. Gradually, however, a derived meaning was coupled with the word Euaggelion . Thus, in his first Apology (c. lxvi), St. Justin speaks of the "Memoirs of the Apostles which are called Euaggelia ", clearing referring, in this way, not to the substance of the Evangelical history, but to the books themselves in which it is recorded. It is true that in this passage of St. Justin we have the first undoubted use of the term in that derived sense. But as the holy Doctor gives us to understand that in his day the word Euaggelion had currently that meaning, it is only natural to think that it had been thus employed for some time before. It seems, therefore, that Zahn is right in claiming that the use of the term Euaggelion , as denoting a written record of Christ's words and deeds, goes as far back as the beginning of the second century of the Christian era.

The second word common to the titles of the canonical Gospels is the preposition kata , "according to", the exact import of which has long been a matter of discussion among Biblical scholars. Apart from various secondary meanings connected with that Greek particle, two principal significations have been ascribed to it. Many authors have taken it to mean not "written by", but "drawn up according to the conception of", Matthew, Mark, etc. In their eyes, the titles of our Gospels were not intended to indicate authorship, but to state the authority guaranteeing what is related, in about the same way as "the Gospel according to the Hebrews", or "the Gospel according to the Egyptians ", does not mean the Gospel written by the Hebrews or the Egyptians, but that peculiar form of Gospel which either the Hebrews or the Egyptians had accepted. Most scholars, however, have preferred to regard the preposition kata as denoting authorship, pretty much in the same way as, in Diodorus Siculus, the History of Herodotus is called He kath Herodoton historia . At the present day it is generally admitted that, had the titles to the canonical Gospels been intended to set forth the ultimate authority or guarantor, and not to indicate the writer, the Second Gospel would, in accordance with the belief of primitive times, have been called "the Gospel according to Peter", and the third, "the Gospel according to Paul". At the same time it is rightly felt that these titles denote authorship, with a peculiar shade of meaning which is not conveyed by the titles prefixed to the Epistles of St. Paul, the Apocalypse of St. John, etc; The use of the genitive case in the latter titles Paulou Epistolai, Apokalypsis Ioannou , etc.) has no other object than that of ascribing the contents of such works to the writer whose name they actually bear. The use of the preposition kata (according to), on the contrary, while referring the composition of the contents of the First Gospel to St. Matthew , of those of the second to St. Mark, etc., implies that practically the same contents, the same glad tidings or Gospel, have been set forth by more than one narrator. Thus, "the Gospel according to Matthew" is equivalent to the Gospel history in the form in which St. Matthew put it in writing; "the Gospel according to Mark" designates the same Gospel history in another form, viz, in that in which St. Mark presented it in writing, etc. (cf. Maldonatus, "In quatuor Evangelistas", cap .i).

(2) Number of the Gospels

The name gospel, as designating a written account of Christ's words and deeds, has been, and is still, applied to a large number of narratives connected with Christ's life, which circulated both before and after the composition of our Third Gospel (cf. Luke 1:1-4 ). The titles of some fifty such works have come down to us, a fact which shows the intense interest which centred, at an early date, in the Person and work of Christ. it is only, however, in connexion with twenty of these "gospels" that some information has been preserved. Their names, as given by Harnack (Chronologie, I, 589 sqq.), are as follows: —

  • 1-4. The Canonical Gospels
  • 5. The Gospel according to the Hebrews.
  • 6. The Gospel of Peter.
  • 7. The Gospel according to the Egyptians
  • 8. The Gospel of Matthias.
  • 9. The Gospel of Philip.
  • 10. The Gospel of Thomas.
  • 11. The Proto-Evangelium of James.
  • 12. The Gospel of Nicodemus ( Acta Pilati ).
  • 13.The Gospel of the Twelve Apostles .
  • 14.The Gospel of Basilides.
  • 15.The Gospel of Valentinus.
  • 16.The Gospel of Marcion.
  • 17.The Gospel of Eve.
  • 18.The Gospel of Judas.
  • 19.The writing Genna Marias .
  • 20.The Gospel Teleioseos .

Despite the early date which is sometimes claimed for some of these works, it is not likely that any one of them, outside our canonical Gospels, should be reckoned among the attempts at narrating the life of Christ, of which St. Luke speaks in the prologue to his Gospel. Most of them, as far as can be made out are late productions, the apocryphal character of which is generally admitted by contemporary scholars (see APOCRYPHA).

It is indeed impossible, at the present day, to describe the precise manner in which out of the numerous works ascribed to some Apostle, or simply bearing the name of gospel, only four, two of which are not ascribed to Apostles, came to be considered as sacred and canonical. It remains true, however, that all the early testimony which has a distinct bearing on the number of the canonical Gospels recognizes four such Gospels and none besides. Thus, Eusebius (died 340), when sorting out the universally received books of the Canon, in distinction from those which some have questioned writes: "And here, among the first, must be placed the holy quaternion of the Gospels", while he ranks the "Gospel according to the Hebrews" among the second, that is, among the disputed writings (Hist. Eccl., III, xxv). Clement of Alexandria (died about 220) and Tertullian (died 220) were familiar with our four Gospels, frequently quoting and commenting on them. The last-named writer speaks also of the Old Latin version known to himself and to his readers, and by so doing carries us back beyond his time. The saintly Bishop of Lyons, Irenæus (died 202), who had known Polycarp in Asia Minor, not only admits and quotes our four Gospels, but argues that they must be just four, no more and no less. He says: "It is not possible that the Gospels be either more or fewer than they are. For since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout the world, and the pillar and ground of the Church is the Gospel and the Spirit of life; it is fitting that we should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side and vivifying our flesh. . . The living creatures are quadriform, and the Gospel is quadriform, as is also the course followed by the Lord" (Adv. Hær., III, xi, 8). About the time when St. Irenæus gave this explicit testimony to our four Gospels, the Canon of Muratori bore likewise witness to them, as did also the Peshito and other early Syriac translations, and the various Coptic versions of the New Testament. The same thing must be said with regard to the Syriac harmony of the canonical Gospels, which was framed by St. Justin's disciple, Tatian, and which is usually referred to under its Greek name of Diatessaron ( To dia tessaron Euaggelion ). The recent discovery of this work has allowed Harnack to infer, from some of its particulars, that it was based on a still earlier harmony, that made by St. Hippolytus of Antioch, of our four Gospels. It has also set at rest the vexed question as to St. Justin's use of the canonical Gospels. "For since Tatian was a disciple of Justin, it is inconceivable that he should have worked on quite different Gospels from those of his teacher, while each held the Gospels he used to be the books of primary importance" (Adeney). Indeed, even before the discovery of Tatian's "Diatessaron", an unbiased study of Justin's authentic writings had made it clear that the holy doctor used exclusively our canonical Gospels under the name of Memoirs of the Apostles .

Of these testimonies of the second century two are particularly worthy of notice, viz, those of St. Justin and St. Irenæus . As the former writer belongs to the first part of that century, and speaks of the canonical Gospels as a well-known and fully authentic collection, it is only natural to think that at his time of writing (about A. D. 145) the same Gospels, and they only, had been recognized as sacred records of Christ's life, and that they had been regarded as such at least as early as the beginning of the second century of our era. The testimony of the latter apologist is still more important. "The very absurdity of his reasoning testifies to the well-established position attained in his day by the four Gospels, to the exclusion of all others. Irenæus' bishop was Potinus who lived to the age of 90, and Irenæus had known Polycarp in Asia Minor. Here are links of connexion with the past which go back beyond the beginning of the second century" (Adeney).

In the writings of the Apostolic Fathers one does not, indeed, meet with unquestionable evidence in favour of only four canonical Gospels. But this is only what one might expect from the works of men who lived in the very century in which these inspired records were composed, and in which the word Gospel was yet applied to the glad tidings of salvation, and not to the written accounts thereof.

(3) Chief Differences between Canonical and Apocryphal Gospels

From the outset, the four Gospels, the sacred character of which was thus recognized very early, differed in several respects from the numerous uncanonical Gospels which circulated during the first centuries of the Church. First of all, they commended themselves by their tone of simplicity and truthfulness, which stood in striking contrast with the trivial, absurd, or manifestly legendary character of many of those uncanonical productions. In the next place, they had an earlier origin than most of their apocryphal rivals, and indeed many of the latter productions were directly based on the canonical Gospels. A third feature in favour of our canonical records of Christ's life was the purity of their teachings, dogmatic and moral, over against the Jewish, Gnostic, or other heretical views with which not a few of the apocryphal gospels were tainted, and on account of which these unsound writings found favour among heretical bodies and, on the contrary, discredit in the eyes of Catholics. Lastly, and more particularly, the canonical Gospels were regarded as of Apostolic authority, two of them being ascribed to the Apostles St. Matthew and St. John, respectively, and two to St. Mark and St. Luke, the respective companions of St. Peter and St. Paul. Many other gospels indeed claimed Apostolic authority, but to none of them was this claim universally allowed in the early Church. The only apocryphal work which was at all generally received, and relied upon, in addition to our four canonical Gospels, is the "Gospel according to the Hebrews". It is a well-known fact that St. Jerome, speaking of this Gospel under the name of "The Gospel according to the Nazarenes", regards it as the Hebrew original of our Greek canonical Gospel according to St. Matthew . But, as far as can be judged from its fragments which have come down to us, it has no right to originality as compared with our first canonical Gospel. At a very early date, too, it was treated as devoid of Apostolic authority, and St. Jerome himself, who states that he had its Aramaic text at his disposal, does not assign it a place side by side with our canonical Gospels: all the authority which he ascribes to it is derived from his persuasion that it was the original text of our First Gospel, and not a distinct Gospel over and above the four universally received from time immemorial in the Catholic Church.

(4) Order of the Gospels

While the ancient lists, versions, and ecclesiastical writers agree in admitting the canonical character of only four Gospels, they are far from being at one with regard to the order of these sacred records of Christ's words and deeds. In early Christian literature, the canonical Gospels are given in no less than eight orders, besides the one (St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, St. John) with which we are familiar. The variations bear chiefly on the place given to St. John, then, secondarily, on the respective positions of St. Mark and St. Luke. St. John passes from the fourth place to the third to the second, or even to the first. As regards St. Luke and St. Mark, St. Luke's Gospel is often placed first, doubtless as being the longer of the two, but at times also second, perhaps to bring it in immediate connexion with the Acts, which are traditionally ascribed to the author of our Third Gospel.

Of these various orders, the one which St. Jerome embodied in the Latin Vulgate, whence it passed into our modern translations, and even into the Greek editions of the New Testament, is unquestionably the most ancient. It is found in the Canon of Muratori, in St. Irenæus, in St. Gregory of Nazianzus, in St. Athanasius, in the lists of the sacred books drawn up by the Councils of Laodicea and of Carthage, and also in the oldest Greek uncial Manuscripts.: the Vatican, the Sinaitic, and the Alexandrine. Its origin is best accounted for by the supposition that whoever formed the Gospel collection wished to arrange the Gospels in accordance with the respective date which tradition assigned to their composition. Thus, the first place was given to St. Matthew's Gospel, because a very early tradition described the work as originally written in Hebrew, that is, in the Aramaic language of Palestine. This, it was thought, proved that it had been composed for the Jewish believers in the Holy Land, at a date when the Apostles had not yet started to preach the glad tidings of salvation outside of Palestine, so that it must be prior to the other Gospels written in Greek and for converts in Greek-speaking countries. In like manner, it is clear that St. John's Gospel was assigned the last place, because tradition at a very early date looked upon it as the last in the order of time. As to St. Mark and St. Luke, tradition ever spoke of them as posterior to St. Matthew and anterior to St. John, so that their Gospels were naturally placed between those of St. Matthew and St. John. In this way, as it seems, was obtained the present general order of the Gospels in which we find, at the beginning, an Apostle as author; at the end, the other Apostle ; between the two, those who have to derive their authority from Apostles.

The numerous orders which are different from the one most ancient and most generally received can easily be explained by the fact that after the formation of the collection in which the four Gospels were for the first time united, these writings continued to be diffused, all four separately, in the various Churches, and might thus be found differently placed in the collections designed for public reading. It is likewise easy in most cases to make out the special reason for which a particular grouping of the four Gospels was adopted. The very ancient order, for instance, which places the two Apostles (St. Matthew, St. John) before the two disciples of Apostles (St. Mark, St. Luke) may be easily accounted for by the desire of paying a special honour to the Apostolic dignity. Again, such an ancient order as Matthew, Mark, John, Luke, bespeaks the intention of coupling each Apostle with an Apostolic assistant, and perhaps also that of bringing St. Luke nearer to the Acts, etc.

(5) Classification of the Gospels

The present order of the Gospels has the twofold advantage of not separating from one another those Evangelical records (St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke) whose mutual resemblances are obvious and striking, and of placing at the end of the list of the Gospels the narrative (that of St. John) whose relations with the other three is that of dissimilarity rather than of likeness. It thus lends itself well to the classification of the Gospels which is now generally admitted by Biblical scholars. St. Matthew , St. Mark, and St. Luke are usually grouped together, and designated under the common name of the Synoptic Gospels. They derive this name from the fact that their narratives may be arranged and harmonized, section by section, so as to allow the eye to realize at a glance the numerous passages which are common to them, and also the portions which are peculiar either to only two, or even to only one, of them. The case stands very differently with regard to our Fourth Gospel . As it narrates but a few incidents in common with the Synoptists, and differs from them in respect to style, language, general plan, etc., its chief parts refuse to be included in a harmony such as may be framed by means of the first three Gospels. While, therefore, the Synoptic narratives are naturally put together into one group, St. John's record is rightly considered as standing apart and as, so to speak, making up a class by itself (see SYNOPTICS).

(6) The Gospels and the Oral Gospel

All recent critics admit that the contents of our four Gospels are intimately connected with more primitive accounts of Christ's life, which may be described, in a general way, as an Oral Gospel. They are well aware that Jesus Himself did not consign to writing His own teachings, and directed His Apostles not to write, but to preach, the Gospel to their fellow-men. They regard as an undoubted fact that these first disciples of the Master, faithful to the mission which He had entrusted to them, began, from the day of Pentecost on, boldly to declare by word of mouth what they had seen and heard (cf. Acts 4:2 ), considering as a special duty of theirs "the ministry of the word" ( Acts 6:4 ). It is plain, too, that those whom the Apostles immediately selected to help them in the discharge of this most important mission had to be, like the Apostles themselves, able to bear witness to the life and teachings of Christ (cf. Acts 1:21 sq. ). The substance of the Evangelical narratives would thus be repeated viva voce by the early teachers of Christianity, before any one of them bethought himself to set it down in writing. It can be readily seen that such Apostolic teaching was then inculcated in words which tended to assume a stereotyped form of expression, similar to that which we find in the Synoptic Gospels. In like manner, also, one can easily realize how the Apostles would not be concerned with the exact order of events narrated, and would not aim at completeness in telling what they "had seen and heard". Thus, according to this opinion, was gradually formed what may be called the "Oral Gospel", that is, a relation of Christ's words and deeds, parallel, in respect to matter and form, to our canonical Gospels. In view of this, critics have endeavoured to find out the general contents of this Oral Gospel by means of the second part of the Book of the Acts, by a study of the doctrinal contents of the Epistles of St. Paul, and more particularly by a close comparison of the Synoptic narratives; and it may be freely said that their efforts in that direction have met with considerable success. As regards, however, the precise relation which should be admitted between our canonical Gospels and the Oral Gospel, there is still, among contemporary scholars, a variety of views which will be set forth and examined in the special articles on the individual Gospels. Suffice it to say, here, that the theory which regards the canonical Gospels as embodying, in substance, the oral teaching of the Apostles concerning the words and deeds of Christ is in distinct harmony with the Catholic position, which affirms both the historical value of these sacred records and the authoritative character of the Apostolic traditions, whether these are actually consigned to writing or simply enforced by the ever living voice of the Church.

(7) Divergences of the Gospels

The existence of numerous and, at times, considerable differences between the four canonical Gospels is a fact which has long been noticed and which all scholars readily admit. Unbelievers of all ages have greatly exaggerated the importance of this fact, and have represented many of the actual variations between the Evangelical narratives as positive contradictions, in order to disprove the historical value and the inspired character of the sacred records of Christ's life. Over against this contention, sometimes maintained with a great display of erudition, the Church of God, which is "the pillar and ground of the truth " ( 1 Timothy 3:15 ), has always proclaimed her belief in the historical accuracy and consequent real harmony of the canonical Gospels; and her doctors (notably Eusebius of Cæsarea, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine) and commentators have invariably professed that belief. As can readily be seen, variations are naturally to be expected in four distinct, and in many ways independent, accounts of Christ's words and deeds, so that their presence, instead of going against, rather makes for the substantial value of the Evangelical narratives. From among the various answers which have been given to the alleged contradictions of the Evangelists we simply mention the following. Many a time the variations are due to the fact that not one but two really distinct events are described, or two distinct sayings recorded, in the parallel passages of the Gospels. At other times, as is indeed very often the case, the supposed contradictions, when closely examined, turn out to be simply differences naturally entailed, and therefore distinctly accounted for, by the literary methods of the sacred writers, and more particularly, by the respective purpose of the Evangelists in setting forth Christ's words and deeds. Lastly, and in a more general way, the Gospels should manifestly be treated with the same fairness and equity as are invariably used with regard to other historical records.

To borrow an illustration from classical literature, the 'Memoirs' of the Apostles are treated [by unbelievers] by a method which no critic would apply to the 'Memoirs' of Xenophon. The [ Rationalistic ] scholar admits the truthfulness of the different pictures of Socrates which were drawn by the philosopher, the moralist, and the man of the world, and combines them into one figure instinct with a noble life, half hidden and half revealed, as men viewed it from different points; but he seems often to forget his art when he studies the records of the Saviour's work. Hence it is that superficial differences are detached from the context which explains them. It is urged as an objection that parallel narratives are not identical. Variety of details is taken for discrepancy. The evidence may be wanting which might harmonize narratives apparently discordant; but experience shows that it is as rash to deny the probability of reconciliation as it is to fix the exact method by which it may be made out. If, as a general rule, we can follow the law which regulates the characteristic peculiarities of each Evangelist, and see in what way they answer to different aspects of one truth, and combine as complementary elements in the full representation of it, we may be well contented to acquiesce in the existence of some difficulties which at present admit of no exact solution, though they may be a necessary consequence of that independence of the Gospels which, in other cases, is the source of their united power (Westcott).

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