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Library: Modern Documents: James Still: What Is a Gospel?

What Is a Gospel?

James Still

Gospel is derived from the Greek word euaggelion and means "good news." The genre of gospels include the four canonical books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as well as some extrabiblical gospels written in the second century. The good news written about Jesus the Anointed (The Jewish Messiah) organized the oral tradition about him into connected narratives to form a smooth transitional story. The chronology that the Evangelists (the anonymous authors who wrote the four gospels) used begins with John the Baptist and the baptism of the Messiah, to his ministry, arrest, death and resurrection. Although a misconception still exists that refers to the gospels as a biography of Jesus--due to Justin Marytr's reference c. 150 CE that the gospels were the "memoirs of the apostles" and the fact that early Christians came to see them that way--the evidence suggests that the Evangelists arranged the stories about Jesus in an order to suit their telling of an aesthetic story, rather than as a chronology of the events as they actually took place.

It is important to fit the gospels into an appropriate genre in order to understand them. The letter-writing genre (that the Apostle Paul used to communicate with the churches in the Diaspora) was well known in the first century. Likewise Jewish apocalyptic genre was also familiar to the readers of the time, so that books such as Daniel and Revelation were understood in the context of apocalypses. But the genre we now call "gospel" was something new to the readers of the Evangelists. Did the Evangelists mean for their work to be read as strict biographies? Or perhaps it was well understood that some amount of poetic license was expected as long as it was based on a core of truthful events?

Due to the belief by most scholars today that Matthew and Luke's gospels were based on Mark's (the Synoptic Problem) Mark's gospel has received a great deal of attention. If the author of Mark's purpose can be understood, then the gospel genre may be understood as well. Form critics emphasize that Mark's gospel is composed of many smaller units called pericopes (pronounced per-RICK-a-pee) that are linked together by Mark into a larger framework. If Mark is seen in this fashion--as an editor or an anthologist--then form critics suggest that Mark obtained his material from either the existing collections of oral traditions about Jesus, or perhaps a pre-Markan "proto-gospel" which codified this oral tradition in a very primitive manner. The early members of the Jesus movement (who would later be called "Christians") spread the stories about Jesus by preaching, referred to by scholars as the kerygma (pronounced care-RIG-muh), literally "that which is proclaimed" and the role of the kerygma was probably essential to getting the sayings and deeds of Jesus to Rome where Mark is believed to have written his gospel between 65-71 CE.

Some scholars still suggest that the gospels are derivations from other genres of the period such as the dialogue, the tragedy, or the Greco-Roman literature piece. Source-critical methods of study suggest that Mark did not intend for his work to be a Greco-Roman biography in the tradition of the period, since he concentrates heavily on the themes of foreshadowing the plots against Jesus and, later, on Jesus' death. This is where redactive criticism has become involved in determining how to understand the genre. Redaction critics study the Sitz im Leben--"situation in life" or the motivation of the gospel-writers themselves in an attempt to understand why they came to write the gospel at all. Redaction critics emphasize the language, style, date and place of composition of a given gospel in order to place it appropriately within a context in order to gain a better understanding of the gospel and the intentions of the author.

Today, it is generally agreed upon that the gospel genre must contain two elements in order to be called a gospel. The work must embody the stories and kerygma of the early Jesus movement and it must organize these elements into a narrative outline. To get an idea of the Sitz im Leben at work, let us now look briefly at the Gospel of Mark.


Brief Introduction to the Gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Mark is the first written gospel. This is referred to as the priority of Mark because Luke and Matthew used Mark as a reference in composing their own gospels some twenty or so years later. The early Church neglected Mark and preferred the other gospels in its liturgy readings. Scribes copied it infrequently and priests and deacons rarely referred to Mark when making a theological point. (Indeed, this trend continues to this day since the Gospel of John has replaced Matthew's gospel as the most popular and quoted-from gospel.) Brandon (1967) insists that Mark was written in Rome (the most popular theory), but Miller (1994) adds that it could have been written in Greek-speaking Syria. There is wide agreement that it was written in the time period immediately leading up to and just after the First Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE. We don't know who wrote Mark's gospel; the work was anonymous until a second-century tradition eventually linked a "Mark" mentioned by Paul (1 Pet. 5:13) as the author of the gospel and so that name has been conveniently used since.

The Gospel of Mark is a tersely-written, fast-paced rollercoaster ride that drops us into the River Jordan with John the Baptist and doesn't pause for breath until we reach the empty tomb. Fredricksen (1988) comments that "Mark's Jesus is a man in a hurry, dashing throughout Galilee in rapid, almost random motion, from synagogue to invalid, from shore to grain field to sea, casting out demons and amazing those who witness him. The spare prose and staccato cures create a mood of nervous anticipation." As Jesus and his growing band of disciples move through the Galilean countryside Mark continually foreshadows the imminent death of Jesus.  Robert Miller writes, "instead of the polished literary style of an accomplished artistic writer, in this gospel we find an immediacy and simplicity of description; a certain harshness and awkwardness in characterization." Miller points out what other scholars (Koester, Fredriksen 1988, Brandon 1967) have also concluded, namely that this rawness of Mark supports the Markan priority and his historical closeness to the vibrant oral tradition that puts us very close to the historical Jesus.

One reason Mark's narrative seems so rushed is that he seems to have taken, what the form critics refer to as a collection of pericopes, and joined them together with the Greek word euthus, which literally means "immediately." The word "immediately" appears 43 times in the Authorized Version of the gospel. The SV translation here uses the more contextually correct word "then" rather than "immediately" since it is widely believed that this was Mark's intention.

Stanton (1990) divides Mark into six sections or acts (as in a play), consisting of the Prologue (1:1-13), the Proclamation (1:14-3:6), the Galilean Ministry (3:7-6:6a), Call of the Disciples (6:7b-13), The Way of Jesus (8:27-10:52), and the Final Confrontation (11:1-13:37).

At some point in the copying and recopying process, Mark's gospel became harmonized with the other three (Miller 1994). This addition to the text is referred to (quite unimaginatively) as the Longer Ending of Mark and includes 16:9-20, the post-resurrection accounts. Although some manuscripts of antiquity include the harmonization, many others do not. The scholarly consensus that the canonical ending was not part of the original Mark rests mainly on the fact that early Church fathers (Clement, Origen, Eusebius and Jerome) do not mention text beyond 16:8 in instances when they should have. The Longer Ending also has two other textual variants referred to as the Shorter Ending of Mark and the Codex Washingtonianus episode, both of which appear in a small minority of the mss.


Brandon, S.G.F. Jesus and the Zealots. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1967).

Coogan, Michael D. and Bruce M. Metzger, eds. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Enslin, Morton Scott. Christian Beginnings. (New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1938).

Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History. K. Lake, trans. Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. London, 1926.Lawlor, H.J., and J.E.L. Oulton, trans. Vol. 1, 1927. Vol. 2, 1928.

Fredriksen, Paula. From Jesus to Christ. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988).

Guignebert, Charles. The Jewish World in the Time of Jesus. (New York: University Books, 1968).

Josephus. The Works of Josephus. Whiston, William, trans. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987).

Kautsky, Karl. Foundations of Christianity. Henry F. Mins, trans. (New York: Russell & Russell, 1953).

Maccoby, Hyam. Revolution in Judaea. (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1973).

_____________. Early Rabbinic Writings. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Miller, Robert J., ed. The Complete Gospels. (Sonoma: Polebridge Press, 1994).

Sanders, E.P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. (London/New York: Allen Lane. Penguin Press, 1993).

Stanton, Graham N. The Gospels and Jesus. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

Weiss, Johannes. The History of Primitive Christianity. 2 vols. (New York: Wilson-Erickson Inc., 1937).


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