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What’s a Gospel?

In and of itself, the word ‘gospel’ just means “good news”. We get it from the Old English “godspel,”which was a translation of the  ancient Greek word “euangelion”, which denoted a message of victory or good news. The basic idea is that it’s supposed to be the message of Jesus, encapsulating his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. That gives us some idea of the concept, but it doesn’t completely describe the range of texts included under the Gospel umbrella. Spoiler: there are…several.So, what’s a Gospel?

Table of Contents

Canonical and Non-canonical Gospels

The canonical Gospels, accepted by a majority of mainstream Christian denominations, are regarded as authoritative and divinely inspired. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are considered canonical and Matthew, Mark, and Luke are considered “Synoptic” (more on that in a minute).

In contrast, non-canonical gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, or the Gospel of Judas, exist outside the recognized canon. These texts offer alternative perspectives (they can in fact get very weird) on Jesus’ life and teachings, presenting a diverse range of theological and philosophical ideas. Gnosticism is very common, which leads to some wild descriptions. While not officially included in the many versions of the Bible, non-canonical gospels are important because they provide valuable insights into the diversity of early Christian thought and some were regarded as inspired scripture at some points.

Common Elements of a Gospel, or; What Makes a Gospel

To distill the essence of the gospel, we must consider its core elements, drawing from both canonical and non-canonical sources:

Good News of Salvation: At its core, the gospel proclaims salvation. Canonical Gospels articulate this through the narrative of Jesus, while non-canonical gospels may offer alternative interpretations of the means and significance of salvation.

Life and Teachings of Jesus: Canonical Gospels provide an account of Jesus’ life and teachings, while non-canonical gospels can go father, giving an account of his childhood or discussing a vast cosmology.

Sacrificial Death and Resurrection: The canonical Gospels emphasize the sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection of Jesus. Non-canonical gospels may present varying views on these events or tell different versions completely.

The Synoptics

If you’ve ever read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, you’ve likely noticed some striking similarities. There’s a reason for that. Scholars believe that there is a literary interdependence among them, with Mark being considered the earliest and serving as a source for both Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke pretty much contain all of Mark. This is called Marcan Priority and is part of the Two Source Hypothesis. Unlike Documentary Hypothesis, this one is usually pretty accepted. 

Types of Gospels

Beyond the distinction between canonical and non-canonical gospels, there are various types of gospels based on their thematic focus and content.

  • Infancy Gospel– focus primarily on the early life of Jesus, often including narratives about his birth, childhood, and adolescence. These gospels seek to fill in the gaps left by the canonical Gospels regarding Jesus’ early years.
  • Saying Gospels (Logia)– emphasize the teachings, sayings, and wisdom sayings of Jesus. They often consist of collections of sayings without extensive narrative context.
  • Passion Gospels – concentrate specifically on the events leading up to and including the crucifixion and death of Jesus. They emphasize the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus.

  • Resurrection Gospels– highlight the events surrounding Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. They often describe the encounters with Jesus post-resurrection.

  • Dialogue Gospels– feature extended dialogues between Jesus and various characters. These conversations may explore theological concepts or address specific issues.

  • Apostolic Gospels-attributed to one of Jesus’ apostles and often claim to offer a unique perspective based on the author’s close association with Jesus.

  • Harmony Gospels -attempt to harmonize the narratives of the four canonical Gospels into a single, coherent chronological account.

We can also consider the Gnostic gospels as a type of gospel. They get…weird. Because Gnostic. There are various types.

  • Gnostic Gospels – often present alternative views of Jesus’ teachings, emphasizing spiritual enlightenment and the acquisition of hidden knowledge. They may include unique cosmological and theological concepts.
  • Secret Book Gospels – also known as Apocryphon Gospels, are associated with the idea of hidden or secret knowledge revealed by Jesus to his disciples.
  • Savior Gospels – often emphasize a Gnostic understanding of salvation, focusing on the divine knowledge that leads to spiritual liberation.
  • Cosmological Gospels – delve into Gnostic cosmology, providing alternative narratives about the creation of the world and the nature of the divine.
  • Sophia Myth Gospels – include myths or narratives centered around the figure of Sophia, a divine feminine entity associated with wisdom.
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